Momentum for Mesopotamia’s marshlands

Once covering an area of up to 20,000 km2, the Mesopotamian marshlands of southern Iraq are one of the world's great wetlands. The marshlands (al ahwar) are part of the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin, which is shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and were once home to several hundred thousand inhabitants, the Ma'dan, a people whose unique way of life had been preserved for over 5,000 years.

Participants of the World Heritage Sub-Regional Meeting in Meknes, Morocco Photo: Haifaa Abdulhalim

This wetland ecosystem plays an important role in the intercontinental migration of birds, and supports a host of rare species. But the marshlands have been devastated by massive drainage schemes, damming and war damage. Of the 10 per cent that remain, one-third has disappeared in the past two years, with the future of many endangered species such as the Sacred Ibis and African Darter hanging in the balance.

Increasingly in the international spotlight, the marshlands are now registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage ‘tentative list’ in preparation for nomination as a mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage site. IUCN’s Regional Office for West Asia (ROWA) has trained a number of stakeholders, mainly in the governmental sector in Mesopotamia, to start preparing the site’s nomination.

Training on the nomination process was held in Amman, Jordan, last year, organized and funded by the UNESCO Iraq office and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The aim was to build Iraqi capacity to enhance the Mesopotamia site so that it meets the necessary criteria in terms of protection, management and integrity. The training was facilitated by the World Heritage focal points in IUCN ROWA and ICCROM, an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the conservation of cultural heritage.

IUCN ROWA is also working with teachers and trainers in the Arab region, stressing the importance of educating younger generations on basic conservation principles of natural heritage sites. This is part of UNESCO’s Young People’s World Heritage Education Programme that aims to enable tomorrow’s decision makers to participate in heritage conservation.

IUCN’s regional World Heritage focal point, Ms. Haifaa Abdulhalim, received an award of US$ 4,000 for a proposal she submitted on training on implementation of the World Heritage Convention. The Hanns Seidel Foundation, in association with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan, presents a regional training award for individuals working in environmental organizations.

As part of ROWA’s strategy to promote IUCN’s role in the region as the advisory body to the World Heritage Committee on Natural Heritage, the IUCN Outstanding Universal Value, Standards for Natural World Heritage publication has been translated into Arabic. This manual outlines the cultural and/or natural significance that any site must have for it to qualify for World Heritage status.

For more information contact:

Ms Haifaa Abdulhalim, email:

Work area: 
Protected Areas
Protected Areas
World Heritage
West Asia
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