February 20, 2005 10:31 pm

Iraq marshes can be partially restored

The fabled marshes of Mesopotamia, largely destroyed by Saddam Hussein in one of the worst pieces of ecological vandalism in recent history, can be partially restored, scientists said on Sunday.

The first scientific assessment of the marshes in southern Iraq, al considered by some to have been the Biblical location of the Garden of Eden, was presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington.

Saddam's drainage programme - accompanied by the persecution and forced relocation of the Marsh Arabs who had lived there for 5,000 years - reduced the wetlands to 7 per cent of their original 20,000 sq km area. But some of the former marshland is already recovering, following the actions of local people who broke down Saddam's dikes and dams after his regime fell in 2003.

The study by US, Canadian and Iraqi scientists showed a surprising rapid return of plants and wildlife to the areas that have been reflooded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. "The quality of the river water turns out to be much higher than many people had expected," said Curtis Richardson of Duke University in North Carolina, the study leader.

"Immediately after [the overthrow of Saddam] we saw just a dozen birds in the marshes," Prof Richardson said. "A year later, there were hundreds and now they are talking about many thousands."

The marshes were once an important resting point for waterfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa. The local otter species, which survived in the small area of the marshes along the Iranian border that were not drained, is also making a come-back.

Barry Warner, a botanist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said: "There are encouraging signs that a vibrant and healthy plant community will re-establish itself in the newly wetted areas."

Because the marshes were drained only recently - mainly during the 1990s as Saddam took revenge on the Shia Marsh Arabs for their failed insurrection after the first Gulf War - many desiccated areas retain a large and viable seedbed.

But the scientists said a sustained international effort would be needed to support Iraqis' efforts to turn the current ad-hoc flooding into a sustainable long-term revival. Peter Reiss, director of the US Agency for International Development's marshland restoration project, said: "Within Iraq the destruction of the marshes has become a symbol of the oppression by Saddam's regime."

Most Iraqis support restoration, but there is no consensus about how much of the marshes to restore permanently given the competing demands for scarce water. Prof Richardson said 30 per cent would be a reasonable target.

Plans by Turkey and Iran to take more water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers also pose a long-term threat to marshland restoration.

Even the Marsh Arabs have somewhat ambivalent attitudes about restoration of the wetlands. Their population, estimated at 350,000 in 1950, is now little more than 100,000, none of whom are living in their original homes, Mr Reiss said. Their traditional way of life, documented by Wilfred Thesiger, Gavin Maxwell and other authors, was based on fishing, water buffalo herding and reed cutting. This is virtually extinct today and most of the remaining Marsh Arabs are impoverished sedentary farmers. But according to Mr Reiss, many of them feel it will be impossible to recreate their way of life and would prefer outside investment in conventional agriculture.

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