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U.N.: Iraq's marshlands recovering

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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Iraq's southern marshlands -- nearly ruined under the Saddam Hussein regime -- have been making a "phenomenal" recovery, a U.N. agency said Wednesday

The U.N. Environmental Program said the wetlands, which had been regarded as "a key natural habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries," have bounced back to about 40 percent of the area they covered in the 1970s.

The region had been "damaged significantly since the 1970s, due to upstream dam construction and drainage operations" by the former regime, according to the U.N. Environmental Program.

But after the toppling of the Saddam regime, officials embarked on restoration and people "began opening floodgates and breaching embankments in order to bring water back into the marshlands."

Some scholars have called the region located in and around Basra, Thiqar and Maysan provinces the biblical Garden of Eden.

Also, it had been home to a 5,000-year-old civilization called "heirs of the Babylonians and Sumerians" and to "rare and unique species like the Sacred Ibis, and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries."

Many observers, such as Human Rights Watch, have long documented persecution by the Saddam regime against the Marsh Arabs, who are mostly Shiite Arabs and who backed the revolt against Saddam after the Gulf War.

The UNEP issued a report on Wednesday that includes analysis and satellite imagery of the turnaround. The conclusions are derived by the Iraqi Marshlands Observation System, started a year ago with funding from Japan.

The project is designed to help Iraq manage and monitor the wetlands, help the environment, and "provide clean drinking water for up to 100,000 people living in or near the marshland."

"The near-total destruction of the Iraqi marshlands under the regime of Saddam Hussein was a major ecological and human disaster, robbing the Marsh Arabs of a centuries-old culture and way of life as well as food in the form of fish and that most crucial of natural resources, drinking water," according to Klaus Toepfer, the agency's executive director, whose comments are included in the report.

"The evidence of their rapid revival is a positive signal, not only for the environment and the local communities who live there, but must be seen as a contribution to wider peace and security for the Iraqi people and the region as a whole."

A UNEP statement said the imagery depicts a "rapid increase in water and vegetation cover over the last two years," and scientists from the agency call this a "positive statement."

Toepfer is quoted as saying that recovery will take years and the situation must be monitored. The agency also said "more detailed field analysis of soil and water quality is needed to gauge the exact state of rehabilitation."

UNEP said that four years ago, it "alerted the world" to the marshland crisis.

"Totaling almost 9,000 square kilometers of permanent wetlands, the Iraqi marshlands dwindled to just 760 square kilometers in 2002. As of August 2005, IMOS shows them covering almost 3,500 square kilometers, approximately 37 per cent of the former 1970s extent. In spring 2005 the figure was nearer to 50 per cent, shrinking with the high summer evaporation rates.

A Human Rights Watch briefing paper published in January 2003 said the Marsh Arabs, had numbered around 250,000 people "as recently as 1991" but were "believed to number fewer than 40,000 in their ancestral homeland."

It read: "Starting shortly after the end of the Gulf war in 1991, Marsh Arabs have been singled out for even more direct assault: mass arrests, enforced 'disappearances,' torture, and execution of political opponents have been accompanied by ecologically catastrophic drainage of the marshlands and the large-scale and systematic forcible transfer of part of the local population."

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