Iraq’s marshes could be restored say scientists

Studies of the Iraqi Mesopotamian marshes have found that they could be partially restored and a valuable wetland environment recreated, provided sufficient water resources are made available.

The marshes once covered around 15,000-square-kilometres – twice the area of the original Florida Everglades – and are sometimes thought of as the site of the fabled ‘Garden of Eden’ of biblical myth. They served as habitats for millions of permanent and migrating birds, as well as a living filter for the wetlands’ feeder rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates.

They also served as the home of the so-called ‘Marsh Arabs’, a native people who opposed the rule of Saddam Hussein. As a result, during his 24 year reign, Saddam drained the marshes to deny them a home and only around 10% of the original marshes remain as “fully functioning wetland”.

However, an international group of wetlands experts, led by ecology professor Curtis Richardson of Duke University, has found that the remaining marshland could act as a source for the revitalisation of the entire ecology.

“The high quality of water, the existing soil conditions and the presence of stocks of native species in some regions indicate that the restoration potential for a significant portion of the Mesopotamian marshes is high,” the report, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), said.

“I think the main outcome of this early research is to show that the marshes have much more resiliency than we thought, and that the potential for them to be restored is much higher,” said Richardson.

The report compared the draining of the marshes with the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and to the deforestation of the Amazon in its magnitude. The researchers’ observations indicated major declines in the numbers of native fish, low daily counts of bird species and that many key amphibian and mammal species were missing from many areas.

After the fall of Saddam, locals smashed down the dykes and dams preventing water reaching the marshes, reflooding about 20% of the area, and providing the impetus for the signs of the early stages of restoration seen now.

However, since this has been conducted in an unregulated fashion, the authors of the report conclude that “restoration is occurring” but “at different rates and species composition” in different areas.

The scientists say the most promise for recovery is in the Al-Hawizeh Marsh which straddles the Iranian border and least affected by drainage activities. Their optimism was slightly tainted, however, by a new dyke construction project observed on the Iranian side of the remaining intact marsh. This would “significantly reduce” water inflow into Al-Hawizeh the researchers predicted.

In conclusion, the authors’ found that there was reason to believe that the marshes could be restores, but acknowledged that “it is unknown if sufficient water supplies can be made available, especially in drought years, to maintain long-term successful marsh restoration over large areas.”

By David Hopkins

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