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Science & Space

Scientists fight to save Iraq's marshes

Project seeks to restore wetlands Saddam drained

By Camille Feanny and Kiesha Porter

The Iraqi marshes after Saddam Hussein diverted rivers that used to feed the wetlands.
The drained marshes in southern Iraq were once abundant with wildlife.
Saddam Hussein
Operation Desert Storm
Water Supply

(CNN) -- Some have called it the Garden of Eden. At one time, the lush marshes of southern Iraq nourished a thriving array of wildlife and half a million people known as the Marsh Arabs.

Today, the region is not the "Fertile Crescent" it once was.

Twelve years ago, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of the marshes in retaliation for an uprising against his regime.

Satellite images and U.N. reports indicate that by 2002 about 7 percent of the wetlands remained. Experts began to fear that they would be gone by 2008.

Today, researchers hope that what Saddam destroyed, science can help regenerate. They are seeking to reverse the damage from years of damming and draining of the marshes.

Sitting at the confluence of four rivers, the vast Mesopotamian wetlands were once considered among the world's most important habitats. Sheltering migrating birds and spawning grounds for fisheries, they spanned about 8,000 square miles.

"Sixty percent of the fish consumed in Iraq in 1990 was from the marshes," said Dr. Azzam Alwash, director of the Eden Again project, one of the groups charged with rebuilding the wetlands.

Today, the marshes, which are critical for fisheries, have decreased by nearly 50 percent in some areas, said Dr. Curtis Richardson, director of Duke University Wetland Center.

With funding from Japan, Italy, Canada and the United States, the program will launch an international restoration effort. The Iraqi government is running the project with cooperation from the U.N. Environment Programme.

Scientists plan to use environmentally sound technologies to develop sanitation and water treatment systems, restore the natural water cycle to the marshes and attempt to resurrect the ecology and local society in the process.

Some progress has already been made.

Once Saddam was expelled from Baghdad, Marsh Arabs breached dams and canals to re-flood a large area of the wetlands in 2003.

"Forty percent of the marshes are now inundated with water," Alwash said. "Some areas have recovered very well, and other areas are doing very poorly."

But Richardson said the local population needs humanitarian aid before an ecological reserve can be established.

"What is really desperately needed is health care for these people, clean drinking water, agricultural stabilization, and then look at the marshes as a refugium and try to restore certain areas," he said.

Home to the Marsh Arabs

Marsh Arabs had always lived on the fringes of society. They trace their ancestry to the Babylonians and Sumerians.

Known as the Ma'adan, their culture is based on fishing and farming in the marshes. It has remained virtually unchanged for millennia.

In 1991, after the United States launched Operation Desert Storm, Marsh Arabs staged an uprising against Saddam. It failed and set the Iraqi dictator on a mission to destroy their culture and environment.

He built dams and canals to divert the water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, draining the wetlands, and ordered the burning of the thick reed beds where Marsh Arabs built their communities. The once-flooded land became a salt-laden desert.

Without water and food, most of the remaining Ma'adan left their ancestral homes.

"It was quite clear that no one would come to their aid," Richardson said. "Saddam came back with tanks and helicopters and killed thousands of people. It was after that he decided to drain the marshes."

According to U.N. records, the population of the Marsh Arabs has dwindled from about half a million in the 1950s to a fraction of that today.

Records show about 80,000 still live in the marshes, tens of thousands fled to refugee camps in Iran and more than a 100,000 relocated to Iraqi cities.

The wildlife suffered as well.

Many rare species such as the African darter, along with other types of birds, fish and mammals, are either threatened or gone. Date palm trees, once abundant in the marshes, were cut down. Much of the land was bombed, burned or drained, while some waterways were poisoned.

"Over the past 12 years, very few people raised this issue against Saddam and his government," Alwash said, "until 2001 when the U.N. came up with its environmental report documenting the exact method Saddam used to dry the marshes. Before that, nobody was paying attention."

Nature in the balance

Scientists have said it could take many years and around $500 million to rebuild the marshes to something close to their original condition.

Dams are major obstacles to restoring natural water flow to the wetlands, and several are not under Iraqi control but lie in nations such as Turkey and Iran.

The situation is further complicated by the insurgency that rages across Iraq and the oil reserves that may lie beneath the marshes.

Some geologists said they believe the region could produce millions of barrels a year, which could lead to drilling and oil development.

Scientists said those obstacles aside, they remain confident that they will be able to achieve their goals for restoring the marshes.

They note with the continued protection and full cooperation of the Marsh Arabs, they are on target to finalize the first phase of the restoration plan by June, although the entire project might not be completed for another decade.

"When do [I] consider this job done?" Alwash asked. "When I can do a kayak trip from Baghdad all the way to Chibaish passing through the restored marshes. Then I will consider myself done."

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