Cabins for temporary use by fisherfolk in the Iraqi wetlands.
Credit: Eden Again Project
Water Returns to Iraq's Eden
By Katherine Stapp
The rehabilitation of wetlands in the region known since ancient times as Mesopotamia stands to benefit four million people.
NEW YORK, (Tierramérica).- Fifteen years after the former Iraqi government used old blueprints dating from the British Empire to drain a vast wetland, the area is slowly creeping back to life.
For millennia, the Mesopotamian Marshlands were an isolated and swampy oasis in the desert, covering more than 20,000 square km of interconnected lakes, mudflats and bayous. Some believe it is where the biblical Eden was located.
But after the end of the 1991 Gulf War, waged against Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition, the native Ma'dan people of the area, partially located in southern Iraq, saw themselves caught up in a failed Shi'ite uprising against the Saddam Hussein regime (1979-2003).
The relatively inaccessible marshes became a safe haven for political opponents and army deserters from Hussein's defeated army.
To quash the rebellion, the Iraqi government built an extensive and elaborate system of drainage and diversion structures, using detailed engineering plans designed but never implemented by the British in the 1950s, during the period of their colonial domination.
In just two years, the marshes were almost completely desiccated.
"The onslaught was so devastating that less than 10 percent of the original marsh areas miraculously survived," Dr. Hassan Janabi, of the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, told a meeting on the marshes held last week at United Nations headquarters in New York.
The damage, however, had begun even earlier. The center of the Mesopotamian watershed, delineated by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers -- the main sources of water and streams connecting to the marshland --, is shared by Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Turkey and Iran, located upstream in the vast basin, began to build dams to hold water and provide hydroelectric energy in the 1950s. But the problem took on catastrophic proportions in the early 1990s.
The area once constituted the largest wetlands ecosystem in the Middle East, and the U.N. has called its draining one of the world's greatest environmental disasters, comparable to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
It was also a human tragedy. Rights groups say that the drainage projects, combined with direct persecution of the 5,000-year-old Ma'dan community, virtually wiped out the Marsh Arab economy and reduced the local population -- who lived on artificial mud-and-reed islands -- from more than 250,000 to just 40,000.
This parched landscape persisted for 15 years, until March 2003, when the United States led the military invasion of Iraq. Dykes north of Basra at the Messhab River were breached. So far, about 20 percent of the original marsh area has been reflooded, although the extent of true restoration is unknown.
The Ministry of Water Resources is coordinating the work of numerous non-governmental organizations, U.N. agencies and others, with financial support from Canada, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Janabi expects some four million Iraqis to benefit economically from the eventual rehabilitation of the Mesopotamian marshes, in productive areas like fishing, agriculture, tourism and education.
"When we started, there was a big vacuum of data because information (about the condition of the marshes) had been declared a state secret" by the Hussein regime, explained Azzam Alwash, director of the U.S.-based Eden Again Project, which has led the charge to rejuvenate the marshes.
Alwash's work has focused on creating a hydrologic model to determine how much water will be needed to restore various parts of the marshlands. Initial results suggest that enough water is present in southern Iraq to at least partially restore the marshes, if the water diversion structures built in the 1990s are removed.
The Iraqi-born engineer explained that development of the basin will require about 100 new water treatment plants and a centralized power supply. One idea is to harness energy from flared gas sites that is now being wasted.
This would also help Iraq meet targets of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, an international treaty to mitigate so-called greenhouse gas emissions that entered into force in February.
Harnessing 4,500 megawatts of power could save about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) emissions, Alwash explained, in addition to significantly improving the quality of life for the marsh dwellers.
The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), which first alerted the world via satellite images that the marshes were vanishing, is playing an active role in capacity-building and promoting sustainable development in the area.
The agency created the Marshland Information Network, comprising the Marshland Arabs Forum, various government ministries and the U.S.-based Iraq Foundation, which runs the Eden Again Project.
"We're targeting smaller communities with projects for drinking water, sanitation and water quality management," said Chizuru Aoki of UNEP. "The goal is to support environmentally sustainable technologies."
* Katherine Stapp is IPS regional editor for North America and the Caribbean.