During the 1990s, Saddam Hussein instituted a series of draining projects that have reduced an 8,000-square-mile refuge of freshwater wetlands—regarded by some as the historical Garden of Eden—to a small, salt-encrusted remnant. A United Nations report described the loss of this ecologically abundant area as "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters." Now that Hussein is gone, an international team of wetlands experts has formed a consortium, called the Eden Again Project, to restore the oasis before it vanishes into the desert.
Located along the southwestern Iran-Iraq border at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the wetlands provided a key rest stop for migratory birds and a nursery for the shrimp and fish of the Persian Gulf. The region also supported more than 300,000 Marsh Arabs, whose opposition to Hussein's regime allegedly provoked the draining project. Since the wetlands began drying up, dozens of endemic species, including smooth-coated otters and Euphrates soft-shell turtles, have vanished, and Gulf fish populations have fallen by half.
Geologist Suzanne Alwash of El Camino College in Torrance, California, director of the Eden Again Project, recognizes that restoring Iraq's unique marsh ecology will involve navigating thorny issues of postwar reconstruction and water distribution in a parched region.
"A project of this scale is going to require enormous funding, and that's provided we can overcome political issues between Iraq and its neighbors that could prevent getting enough freshwater into the country. But it looks like the U.N. and the United States and Iraqi governments are ready to give the support we need," Alwash says. Then come the scientific challenges: "You can't just flood the area. It's a delicate process that involves simultaneously controlling the amounts, the salinity, the quality, and all sorts of possible contaminations," says wetlands ecologist Mary Kentula of the Environmental Protection Agency, an adviser to the Eden Again project.
If the project proceeds as intended, some areas could return to their wetland state in five years. Then Alwash and her colleagues plan to reintroduce displaced species and monitor how they coexist with returning Marsh Arabs. In this case, researchers do not see humans as an obstacle to success: "They have been essential to this ecosystem for over 10,000 years," Alwash says.