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Iran races against time to revive vanishing wetlands

An aerial view taken on September 24, 2021, shows the al-Huwaiza Marshes, 420 km south of Baghdad, on the Iraq-Iran border [ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images]
An aerial view taken on September 24, 2021, shows the al-Huwaiza Marshes, 420 km south of Baghdad, on the Iraq-Iran border [ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images]

On 2 February, 1971, representatives from 18 countries gathered in Iran's northern coastal town of Ramsar, nestled between the majestic Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea, to sign a landmark treaty aimed at preserving the world's wetlands, Anadolu News Agency reports.

What came to be known as the Ramsar Convention, the first-of-its-kind environmental agreement sought to engage governments in tackling pressing issues related to wetlands, committing to their "wise use," and cooperating on trans-boundary wetlands and species.

The agreement, which came into force in 1975, now has now 171 countries as parties – a worldwide network of wetland managers.

Massoud Ghorbani, a Tehran-based environmental activist, said the agreement played a pivotal role in attracting the world's attention to wetlands, but failed to achieve all of its objectives.

"Half a century after the agreement was adopted," he told Anadolu Agency that "the world has recognised the importance of wetlands in sustainable development, climate change and disaster management, but it's also true that wetlands continue to vanish, posing a serious threat to biodiversity."

According to the 2021 Global Wetland Outlook report, almost 64 per cent of the world's wetlands have vanished since 1900, with 35 per cent of wetland habitat losses taking place since 1970.

Iran, which played a key role in the adoption of the first modern agreement on global wetlands conservation, has been grappling with a series of challenges to preserve and protect its wetlands, many of which are already on the brink of extinction.

The country is known to have 141 wetlands spread across 3 million hectares, of which 25 major wetlands have been registered in the Ramsar Convention, covering an area of over 1.4 million hectares.

"Of the 25 Iranian wetlands in the Ramsar Convention, almost one-third are drying out due to environmental degradation, drought, pollution, climate change, coastal erosion and other adverse environmental factors," Ghorbani asserted, urging immediate action.

Drying wetlands

Last month, the release of water from the Kamal Khan Dam in Afghanistan's Nimruz province spread cheers in Iran's border province of Sistan-Baluchistan, home to the Hamoun wetland.

The 5,660-square-kilometer (2,185-square-mile) area, which gave birth to Zoroastrianism and served as the setting for Persian poet Ferdowsi's epic book "Shahnameh", has degraded over time, threatening the lives and livelihoods of people in the border province.

According to environmental experts, severe drought and poor water management have turned the world-famous Hamoun wetland into an ecological disaster.

"The restricted flow of water from the Hirmand River, which feeds the Hamoun wetland has, over the years, turned the wetland into a wasteland," Hashemi Shafaghi, a journalist and activist from Sistan, told Anadolu Agency, blaming it on the construction of dams in neighbouring Afghanistan as well as mismanagement of water resources in Iran.

"Hamoun wetland has been a lifeline of locals for centuries, and now it has become a source of the misery," Shafaghi asserted, adding that the drought has forced thousands of people to migrate.

The fast vanishing wetlands point to a growing water crisis in the country which, in recent years, has fuelled anger and discontent. Annual rainfall has plummeted to about 200 mm, or almost one-third of the global average, with the majority of provinces battered by arid conditions.

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An official with the Department of Environment told Anadolu Agency that two-thirds of wetlands in Iran are "on the brink of disaster."

"Twenty years ago, wetlands in Iran were thriving with life and economic prosperity … now, they are increasingly contributing to death, diseases and economic crisis," he said, asking to remain anonymous as he is not authorised to talk to the media.

In the Gavkhouni wetland near the central provinces of Isfahan and Yazd, migratory birds such as flamingos, sea sparrows and wild ducks returned a few years ago following heavy rainfall, but they disappeared again with the return of arid conditions.

The central provinces have seen mass protests recently against the growing water crisis. Tens of thousands of people took over the dried Zayendeh Rud River in Isfahan, drawing the attention of top government functionaries.

"Vanishing of wetlands and rivers is a cause of serious concern, which necessitates proper water management strategies based on scientific planning," Farshad Rezvani, an environmentalist from Isfahan who participated in recent protests, said.

"If it continues, we may see larger protests in the future, because water is the lifeline."

Reviving wetlands

Some wetlands, like Jazmourian in the south-eastern Kerman province, have lately shown signs of revival after being dormant for many decades due to heavy rains.

The only source of water in Iran's largest province, the Jazmourian wetland, was hit by severe drought for years due to climate change, construction of dams, soaring temperature and exhaustion of groundwater resources, according to experts.

In the southern Fars province, local environmental revivalists have been engaged in efforts to bring the Kamjan wetland back to life, helped by a grant from the UN Development Program (UNDP).

The efforts won them the Energy Globe Award from an Austrian environmental body last month.

The project, according to environmentalists, is aimed at reviving the dying wetland as well as training people in preventing over-exploitation of water resources.

"Agricultural development activities in the mid-1980s caused the wetland to dry out, which harmed the local biodiversity," said Kouroush Namdari, an environmental researcher who worked on the Kamjan wetland.

Some years ago, there were also concerns about the vanishing of the Hoor al Azam wetland in the oil-rich south-western Khuzestan province, after more than 60,000 hectares of the internationally reputed wetland had dried up due to industrial activities and plans for oil exploration.

READ: Iran and Afghanistan sign water deal after decades-old dispute

The plan was later shelved after protests from locals and environmental activists.

Meanwhile, an official with the Department of Environment said a plan is on the anvil designed to preserve and protect 25 wetlands in Iran that have been registered with the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.

The plan was floated last year by the Energy Ministry in the previous administration and discussions have continued, the official told Anadolu Agency.

The plan, he stressed, seeks to "prevent illegal stealing of water" from rivers and restore water supply to wetlands in order to help them revive and allow migratory birds to return to their natural habitat.

Apart from that, a "robust disaster management strategy" is also being considered to "mitigate the impact of natural disasters" that have led to the depletion of the country's water resources.

"It is a long-term plan that requires the cooperation of people, environmentalists and the government," he said. "For now, we can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

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