A new effort to preserve Iraq's rich biodiversity, from mountains to marshes
As an international conference noted this week, the world's biodiversity is threatened. Iraq is no exception – but before anything can be done, it needs Iraqis who understand the problems.
Mt. Permagrone, Iraq
On this mountainside in Iraqi Kurdistan, botanists are gathering hundreds of plant samples in an effort to protect their country’s diverse environment, ranging from northern mountain ranges to the marshes of southern Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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Mount Permagrone is home to one-sixth of the roughly 3,300 plant varieties intended to be collected and preserved in a new national herbarium – a catalog of the country’s plant specimens that was looted and destroyed in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
It’s also near one of the major tributaries of the Tigris River that, together with the waters of the Euphrates, forms Iraq’s southern marshes. Major swaths of the marshes, the biggest wetlands in the Middle East, were drained by Mr. Hussein and are just now coming back to life.
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“Those who want the marshes restored understand that there is an intrinsic connection between the mountains of Kurdistan and the marshes of Iraq,” says environmentalist Azzam Alwash, whose Nature Iraq organization has shifted from monitoring bird life in the south to a wider mission: protecting key biodiversity areas.
“If I want the marshes restored and managed properly,” Mr. Alwash says, “I have to not only protect the marshes but protect the integrity of the environment in Kurdistan because it’s all one habitat.”
Iraq recently became party to the international Convention on Biological Diversity, aimed at protecting biodiversity and encouraging sustainable development. Signatories to the convention are meeting in Japan for an Oct. 18- 29 summit.
But Dr. Alwash has plenty of his own ideas already, including creating a national park in the marshes. Such a park would commit the government to regulating the water flow to prevent the wetlands from stagnating and plant and bird life from disappearing. That’s a challenge amid competing demands for Iraq’s increasingly limited water – including those by the oil industry.
His group is also trying to have the mountain declared a special biodiversity site, which would protect it from development in the rapidly expanding city of Sulaymaniyah nearby. But with protecting the environment a tough sell in war-torn Iraq, Alwash hopes to appeal to the economic interests of Kurdish residents in the north, promoting ecotourism activities such as kayaking and rock climbing.