Letter From Save the Tigris to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre on Fourth State of Conservation Report by the State Party of Iraq on the Ahwar: Civil Society Concerns and Requests
In 2016, the Iraqi Marshes were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the Ahwar. Each year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee reviews reports on the state of conservation of the property and follows up with the State Party of Iraq in case it is not properly managed. Iraq’s 2021 State of Conservation Report was submitted on 28 January 2021 by the Permanent Delegation of Iraq to UNESCO. This letter constitutes specific comments on the report from Save the Tigris Campaign.
26 April 2021
From: Save the Tigris Campaign
To: UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Re: Fourth State of Conservation Report by the State Party of Iraq on the Ahwar — Civil Society Concerns and Requests
We write as a coalition of civil society organisations from nine countries concerned with the protection of the Ahwar of Southern Iraq. We would like to express our concerns to the World Heritage Centre over the State Party of Iraq’s response to Decision 43COM7B.35 of The World Heritage Committee.
Despite the abundance of water as a result of torrential rainfall in 2019, Iraq remains at high risk to climate volatility and extremes, particularly the Marshes which constitute the natural heritage of the property. Iraq in 2020 acceded to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The country is currently preparing a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) to build resilience to climate change. Arid summers with high temperatures and high evaporation rates will remain the norm in the future. Meanwhile, the cumulative impact of multiple dam constructions is exacerbating the uncertainty in water supplies for the Iraqi Marshes. In Turkey, the Ilısu Dam has started operating while other dams within the GAP-project on the Tigris River are to be constructed. This will include Cizre, a major dam on the Tigris for irrigation purposes. In Iran, diversions of Tigris River tributaries Lesser Zab and Sirwan through dams and pipelines have greatly impacted the available water flowing to Iraq, particularly in the summers, including the Marshes at the downstream end. As such, there is a high risk that the reduced water flow to the Marshes would lead to 1) Loss of livelihood for the populations of the Marshes and thereby induce slow-onset (forced) displacement and migration and 2) irreversible damage to the ecology of the Marshes, with likely loss of some species of aquatic life.
Save the Tigris Campaign would ask the World Heritage Centre to:
- Request the State Party of Iraq to demonstrate measurements taken to ensure sustainable water flows to the Ahwar for the next years;
- Request the State Party of Iraq to, within the framework of the National Adaption Plan, undertake a Climate Risk Assessment of the Marshes to identify which livelihoods of its indigenous communities are threatened by climate impacts as well as the most urgent adaptation priorities to mitigate possible water scarcity;
- Request the State Party of Iraq to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment of existing and proposed dams on the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries, with a specific mandate of assessing future impact on flows to the Ahwar;
- Request the State Party of Turkey to explicitly incorporate the minimum required flows for the Ahwar in the mutually agreed share of the discharge of Ilısu Dam as well as future dams on the Tigris River, in order to preserve the OUV of the Ahwar;
- Request the State Party of Iran to explicitly incorporate the minimum required flows for the Ahwar in the regulation of dams on tributary rivers of the Tigris that feed the property, in order to preserve the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Ahwar;
- Request the State Party of Iraq to take measures to further strengthen law enforcement in the Marshes to protect biodiversity, particularly the Law No. 27 of 2009 for Protection and Improvement of Environment;
- Request the State Party of Iraq to install a moratorium on oil exploration and extraction within and adjacent the property;
- Request the State Party to take adequate steps to disclose information regarding concerns and measurements for the property and involve independent civil society in the process of the site management and protection.
Our specific comments on Iraq’s 2021 State of Conservation Report as submitted on 28 January 2021 by the Permanent Delegation of Iraq to UNESCO, are as follows:
1. Minimum Water Flows
In its most recent decision, 43COM7B.35, the World Heritage Committee reiterated its request that the State Party of Iraq “provides the natural components of the property with adequate water within its national capacity as a matter of utmost priority”. According to the Fourth State of Conservation Report, 4.8 billion cubic meters was provided for the Marshes in 2020. The abundance of water as a result of rainfall and floods in 2019 continued its positive impact in 2020. There are, however, no guarantees that required flows will be met in the future. The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly unpredictable and may lead to both droughts and floods as we move towards extreme weather phenomena. Considering the volatility of the climate, we deem it important that the State Party of Iraq demonstrates how sustainable water flows to the Marshes can be ensured in the future. Climate change is expected to reduce rainfall, leading to a surge in water scarcity across Southern Iraq. We recommend that the National Adaptation Plan (NAP), which is currently being prepared by the Iraqi government in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, includes policies to increase resilience of the indigenous communities of the Marshes, who depend on the water of the natural component for their livelihood. In addition, the NAP should identify the most urgent climate adaptation priorities for the Marshes.
2. Long-Term Water Sharing Agreements
In its decision, the World Heritage Committee encourages efforts of the States Parties of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey “to ensure the provision of adequate amounts of water for the Ahwar”. We are encouraged by the fact that the Governments of Iraq and Turkey are working towards a common agreement on a joint protocol which, according to the State of Conservation Report, would “sustain the natural resources” of the Ahwar. The report claims that Turkey agreed on a fixed share for the discharge of water released by Ilısu Dam. The amount of this fixed share should be submitted to the World Heritage Committee. We believe the protocol should specifically mention the World Heritage property of the Ahwar.
The State Party of Iraq encourages Turkey to ratify the Memorandum of Understanding in the Field of Water of 2009 (amended in 2014). However, to date there has been no public discussion about the contents of this memorandum despite the need for an open public debate to ensure that this critical memorandum preserves Iraq’s rights and meets international standards. The Memorandum of Understanding lacks any commitment by Turkey to refrain from building more dams on the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers without previous coordination with Iraq, and without studying the impact of such dams on the water security of the Ahwar — despite the fact that the State Party of Iraq mentions in its report that it expressed concerns over Cizre Dam to Turkey. Any agreement on water shares between Iraq and Turkey should refer to international law, in particular the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses from 1997. In addition, dialogue between Turkey and Iraq emphasizes water resources development with a large role for Turkish companies. Rather, it should focus on the protection and conservation of water resources and associated water-dependent ecosystems.
We encourage the Iraqi government to continue to discuss a cooperation mechanism with Iran to guarantee Iraq’s shares of the rivers that feed the Marshes (particularly the Sirwan and Lesser Zab rivers). The State Party of Iraq should clarify who is the Iranian Counterpart in Iran and the counterpart the Joint Technical Committee of both countries.
In Decision 40COM7 (2016), the UNESCO World Heritage Committee says it “urges States Parties to ensure that the impacts from dams that could affect properties located upstream or downstream within the same river basin are rigorously assessed in order to avoid impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value.” According to the Strategy for Water and Land Resources in Iraq (SWLRI), adopted by the Iraqi Government and currently under revision, “no new large dams are required to assist Iraq in achieving its 2035 objectives [[to achieve water security]].” Yet the current Iraqi Government has repeatedly announced its intention to construct Makhoul Dam on the Tigris River, with a reservoir of 3 billion cubic meters. In addition, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is constructing 11 dam projects on tributaries of the Tigris River, which will store up to 59 million cubic meters of water. Few if any environmental impact assessments/studies of these projects are accessible. The cumulative impact of all these dams on the Marshes must be addressed if the State Party of Iraq is willing to meet the minimum flows to the Iraqi Marshes as per requirements of the World Heritage Committee.
For now, we would request that the World Heritage Committee requires the State Party of Iraq and countries involved to:
- Undertake a basin-wide Strategic Environmental Assessment of existing and proposed dams on the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries, with a specific mandate of assessing future impact on flows to the Ahwar. The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) should be conducted in compliance with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Guidance for World Heritage Environmental Assessments, with opportunities for public participation;
- Halt the design and financing of new dam projects until an SEA is available to guide such development and its conclusions are made public and reviewed by the World Heritage Center and IUCN. Once the SEA is available Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for each large dam and reservoirs upstream need to fully incorporate the conclusions of the SEA and be submitted to WHC and IUCN for review
- Request the State Party of Turkey to explicitly incorporate the minimum required flows for the Ahwar in the fixed share of the discharge of Ilısu Dam as well as future dams on the Tigris River, in order to preserve the OUV of the Ahwar; and
- Request the State Party of Iran to explicitly incorporate the minimum required flows for the Ahwar in the regulation of dams on tributary rivers of the Tigris that feed the property, in order to preserve the OUV of the Ahwar.
3. Bird Hunting and Overfishing
Law No. 27 of 2009 for Protection and Improvement of Environment in Iraq aims to preserve natural heritage and biodiversity. Article 18 prohibits fishing or hunting of animals that are under protection under Iraqi law, including migratory birds. The Marshes, however, continue to face threats to its biodiversity despite the existence of adequate legislation. The State Party of Iraq should therefore take measures to further strengthen law enforcement in the Marshes to protect biodiversity.
The World Heritage Committee has requested Iraq to submit data concerning illegal bird hunting and overfishing including the number of prosecutions and convictions from these illegal activities and to further strengthen its legal protection, enforcement, and management capacity to control these activities. UNESCO should request data from the State Party of Iraq on an annual basis to assess which species are most affected. This could be done with the support of IUCN.
4. Oil Activities
The World Heritage Committee urges the State Party of Iraq to commit to prohibiting oil exploration or extraction inside the World Heritage property. According to our observations, oil activities continue to take place in the near vicinity of the Marshes (see annex). As a result, environmental threats to World Heritage property have increased. In Maysan Governorate, the Iraqi government licensed exploitation of Helaya Oil Field, which surrounds Hawiza Marsh, to Chinese oil companies Petro China and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). Here, oil exploitation has been taking place by the banks of the Tigris River which flows into the Marsh, mostly in the areas of Al-Aistiraha and Abu Khissaf (50 kilometres from Amarah city) where secondary companies Bohai, Daqing, and Anton Oil have been developing the oil sites under the supervision of Petro China. These activities have had two negative impacts on Um al-Niaj, the northern part of Hawiza Marsh. Oil spills can be observed in the surrounding areas, including heave waste from the oil waters, in the rivers feeding the Marshes. Additionally, the oil exploitation process consumes huge amounts of water, especially in comparison to domestic consumption in Maysan Governorate. Environmental impact assessments of these oil activities have not been made available.
The Ministry of Oil shared Letter No. 7052 of 12/03/2020 with oil companies, instructing them not to cause harm to the Marshes property. However, oil activities will continue to take place adjacent the property. The State of Party of Iraq commits to continue monitoring adherence of the Basrah Oil Company to environmental impact assessments. The State Party of Iraq should share such environmental impact assessments with the World Heritage Centre which should verify if they meet international standards. In addition, it should clarify which specific areas in the vicinity of the site would be subjected to oil activities. Is the State Party of Iraq willing to install a moratorium on oil exploration and extraction adjacent the property? Additionally, UNESCO should clarify whether oil developments could jeopardize the World Heritage designation of the Ahwar.
5. Involvement of Civil Society and Local Communities
A coalition inclusive of all stakeholders, including civil society and indigenous communities, would be best fit to manage the sustainable development of the property. This requires transparency and increased collaboration from the State Party of Iraq. The Higher Committee for the Implementation of the Management Plan for the Ahwar of Southern Iraq as a World Heritage Property has not released any of its findings to the press. The World Heritage Centre should request the State Party of Iraq to take adequate steps to disclose information regarding concerns and measurements for the property and involve independent civil society in the process of the site management and protection.
Save the Tigris Campaign
ANNEX: Oil Activities in Hawiza Marsh
Coordinates of locations observed:
31.619277, 47.506041 | 31.620910, 47.496289 | 31.668681, 47.446527 | 31.673004, 47.487858