Considered by many to be the fabled ‘Garden of Eden’, the marshes once covered around 15,000 square kilometres – twice the area of the original Florida Everglades – serving as habitats for millions of migrating and permanent birds, as well as a 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 remained.

After the fall of Saddam, locals smashed down the dykes and dams preventing water reaching the marshes, reflooding parts of the area and providing the impetus for the recovery.

Now, around 40% have recovered to their former extent. New satellite images from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) show a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover over the last two years, and while more detailed analysis of soil and water quality is needed to gauge the exact state of rehabilitation, UNEP scientists believe the findings are a positive signal that the Iraqi marshlands are well on the road to recovery.

“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,” said Klaus Toepfor, UNEP executive director.

“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,” he added.

An original study into the potential for recovery was led by professor Curtis Richardson of Duke University earlier this year (see related story), which showed that the marshes had huge potential for restoration.

The new findings come from the Iraqi Marshlands Observation System (IMOS), launched a year ago with funding from the Government of Japan. The project is designed to help restore the environment and provide clean drinking water for up to 100,000 people living in or near the Marshlands.

Six pilot project sites in Thi-Qar, Basrah, and Missan governorates are testing different ESTs – environmentally sound technologies – to see how they perform in bringing drinking water, sanitation systems and wetland management skills to local people and communities.

The low-tech less polluting ESTs include restoration of reed beds and other marshland habitats to act as natural water-filtration systems.

The project is also helping train the Iraqi authorities at local and national level.

By David Hopkins

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