Delft, The Netherlands, 02 Feb 2017

PhD alumnus works to restore Mesopotamian wetlands

Today is World Wetlands Day. This day is celebrated each year on 2 February. It marks the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in Ramsar, Iran, on 2 February 1971. The aim is to raise public awareness of values and benefits and promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands. The theme for 2017 is Wetlands for disaster risk reduction. On this occasion, Ali Dinar, who completed his PhD research at UNESCO-IHE, writes about hope in restoring the world famous Mesopotamian wetlands.

Hope for resoring Mesopotamian marshes

The Mesopotamian Marshes (Al Ahowar) were once one of the most extensive wetland ecosystems of the Middle East. Receiving water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flowing through Iraq, and the Karkheh and Karun Rivers from Iran, it extended over 15,000- 20,000 km2. Immortalised in the classic 1960s’ book The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger, it was home for around 500,000 Marsh Arabs, descendants from the ancient Sumerians.

The culture of the Marsh Arabs was dramatically impacted in the mid-1990s by diversion of water flows, instigated largely for political reasons. The wetlands dried out, and the Marsh Arabs deprived of their way of life. By 1995 only a few scattered settlements remained. The destruction of the wetlands went largely unnoticed by the global community until in 2003, and after the collapse of the former Iraqi regime, restoration programmes supported by international agencies worked to direct water once more into the wetlands.

With re-flooding the marshes began to recover, benefiting both people and wildlife, but now faced another challenge from increasing upstream water withdrawals and deteriorating water quality. A focus on the hydrology and engineering also tended to neglect important social aspects and the need to work with tribal laws and traditions. Lessons from the early stages of the restoration programme are now leading to more involvement of the Marsh Arab communities in water resources management, and with more attention paid to small-scale projects operating at the community level rather than the larger and more generalised approach. While this can take more time for effective water management, overall it provides more sustainable benefits. There is still some way to go with the restoration of the marshes, but there is how hope for bringing back the important cultural and natural heritage of the Mesopotamian marshes of the Middle East.

Ali Dinar Abdullah: short biography

Ali Dinar Abdullah was awarded a BSc in Civil Engineering from Basra University in 2001, and an MSc in Water Resources Management from UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in 2007. Returning to the Ministry of Water Resources Iraq, he became head of maintenance of water resource projects in 2008. With four more years of experience on flood protection, irrigation and drainage networks, Ali came back to UNESCO-IHE in 2012, researching water availability and salinity changes for improved water resources management in the Shatt al-Arab River, which is formed where the Euphrates and Tigris merge. In 2016 he successfully defended his PhD thesis in Delft in 2016, and is now back in Iraq at the Ministry, developing ideas and operation capacity to support the further restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes. His PhD thesis is available for download on the right.

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