Saving Eden

Can the ecology and the economy of Iraq's once-glorious wetlands be restored?

By Sheri FinkJul 24, 2005 5:00 AM


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April 2003: A dust storm kicks up as we drive north from Kuwait into southern Iraq. An unending scene of flat, dun-colored earth plays outside the windows without visual relief, except for the abandoned tanks and salt-encrusted depressions of earth that, as the storm eases, shine brightly in the sun.

I am traveling with a team of aid workers just as major combat is drawing to a close. After we deliver medical supplies to a looted hospital in the small city of Al Qurnah, the grateful staff insists that we visit the site where local legend says the tree of life once stood. We arrive to find Eden reduced to a patch of mangy grass and half-dead trees, on a dusty street with crumbling facades that at one time overlooked the fabled confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Bleaker than the landscape is the infrastructure for some 80,000 people clinging to an agrarian lifestyle, often along drainage canals within regions that used to be covered by marshes. All the villagers we visit lack access to clean water and health care. Iraqi professionals from neighboring cities express both a dim opinion of the people who live here—so-called Marsh Arabs—and outright fear of venturing into their territory. With the war mostly over, aid officials warn that thousands of displaced persons and refugees might venture back to their former homeland only to be greeted by an environment that can no longer support them. Nonetheless, change is under way. The dams that created this wasteland are coming down.

June 2003: The scene is dramatically different. There is a revival of life in the Mesopotamian marshlands, a vast expanse of seasonal and permanent marshes, lakes, and mudflats that once stretched for up to 7,500 square miles, a region roughly three-quarters the size of the Everglades. Some previously dry areas are now covered with water. Ducks swim at the margins, and men pole slowly past in long, slender canoes. Men in long robes are rebuilding their mudhifs—cathedral-like guesthouses crafted of reeds. Depictions of these arched architectural progenitors are pressed into 5,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablets.

This ecosystem, the largest of its kind in the Middle East and western Eurasia, once was a key winter stop on the intercontinental flyway for migratory birds and waterfowl, a nursery ground for shrimp caught in Kuwait, and a filtration system that removed toxins and irrigation runoff before the rivers flowed into Persian Gulf fisheries. The marshes also supported hundreds of thousands of people who lived in mudhifs on floating islands in the marshes or along the perimeter of their waterways.

Within the span of a quarter century, all of that has nearly vanished. Large dam-building projects in Iraq cut water inflow and eliminated a cleansing spring pulse of snowmelt into the Tigris and Euphrates, which fed the marshes. Then, in the early 1990s, the Iraqi government initiated a massive drainage program. A United Nations Environment Programme report says that roughly 86 percent of the surface area of Iraq’s marshlands was lost between the early 1970s and 2001. Iraqi authorities said the water diversions were for irrigation, but people outside the country said the project targeted the marshes as a hiding place for dissidents and army deserters. Some of the dried land was torched. The drainage, combined with a harsh anti-insurgency campaign, caused at least 140,000 marsh inhabitants to flee their homeland, many over the border into Iran.

Quick on the heels of Saddam Hussein’s removal from power, inhabitants began pulling down embankments and reflooding the land. Ecologists and engineers from Iraq and abroad launched efforts to not only preserve what was left of the wetlands but also restore them. The programs differ from traditional wetlands restoration projects because they recognize the needs of the people of the marshes as well as the extraordinary ecological riches that surround them.

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