February 21, 2005

Iraq’s Marshes are Slowly Recovering

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- Nearly one fifth of the Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq, almost completely drained by Saddam Hussein, are once again flooded with water, according to experts working on an international effort to restore the wetlands.

Considered the cradle of western civilization -- the location of the Garden of Eden, according to scholars of the Bible -- the marshes, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are key to the economy, politics and ecosystem of the region.

"The future of the 5,000-years-old Marsh Arab culture and the economic stability of large portions of southern Iraq are dependent on the success of this effort," said Curtis Richardson, an environmentalist from Duke University, at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here this weekend.

"I think you could stabilize huge, vast areas of Iraq by doing this project," Richardson said.

Originally covering 15,000 square kilometers, the marshes were once the habitat for millions of birds, as well as fish and crustaceans, and served as a natural filter for river waters en route to the Gulf.

Saddam Hussein drained the swamps in retaliation for an uprising against his regime. Today only about 100,000 people remain of the more than half a million who once lived in and around the marshes.

With the fall of Saddam following the US-led invasion in March 2003, Iraqi farmers destroyed some of the dams and canals that had turned once lush wetlands into deserts.

Contrary to experts' fears, the returning waters did not bring damaging chemicals or salts that could have prevented the renewal of flora and fauna, Richardson said.

Further restoration of the marshes is complicated by an enormous dam in Turkey build in 1998 and another in Iran, on the frontier with Iraq.

The latter will dry up the principle source of water for the last undamaged marshland, the Al-Hawizeh, said experts, whose research on the project will appear in the February 15 edition of the magazine Science.


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