Careful Flooding May Restore Iraq Marshes, Experts Say
WASHINGTON Wetlands that once sheltered Marsh Arabs and a host of wildlife in southern Iraq are being partly restored and could offer a haven once again if it is done right, experts said Saturday.
Luckily, water coming into the area from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is unexpectedly clean, washing away toxic salts that built up when the area was drained under Saddam Hussein's regime, the international team of experts reported.
Bird species are starting to return, including pelicans, cormorants and wading species. The area was also important for spawning fish and shrimp and, with only 20 percent of the marshes restored, these animals have along way to go, the experts reported.
"The future of the 5,000-year-old Marsh Arab culture and the economic stability of large portions of southern Iraq are dependent on the success of this restoration effort," they write in next week's issue of the journal Science.
And there would be political benefits as well.
"I think you could stabilize huge, vast areas of Iraq by doing this," said Curtis Richardson, an ecologist at Duke University said at a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"The destruction of the Marsh Arabs is seen as symbolic of Saddam Hussein's regime," agreed Peter Reiss, a water resource specialist at Development Alternatives, Inc. who is directing the restoration project under contract to the U.S. government.
"It became emblematic of those years of oppression."
The area of tall reeds and clear waters is valued by more than just its immediate inhabitants.
Cradle of Civilization
"The Mesopotamiam marshes of southern Iraq are considered by many to be the 'cradle of Western civilization' and are often referred to as the Garden of Eden," Reiss, Richardson and their colleagues wrote.
"Notably, the marshes were once the permanent habitat for millions of birds and a flyway for millions more migrating between Siberia and Africa."
Saddam drained more than 90 percent of the 5,800 square miles of marshes during his regime, in part to punish the Shi'ite Marsh Arabs who opposed him, in part to provide access to the border with Iran during his country's long war with its neighbor and in part to save water for cities upstream.
Richardson said as soon as Saddam was ousted by U.S. troops, farmers blew up dikes and earthen dams that had held the water back. Often this had unexpected effects.
"You'd go to a village and find it half-flooded. They had no idea it would go that far," Richardson said. "You may be washing salt into another farmer's field."
Ecologists were worried that toxic salts, pesticides and other chemicals could be washed back into the marshes and kill off what life had managed to survive. But except for some areas that are saltier than normal, they have found little evidence this happened.
While rainfall is only about 4 inches a year, the snowmelt in the mountains of neighboring Iran and Turkey send clear, fresh water every spring, they found.
Reiss estimated 100,000 to 125,000 people remain in the area, but of the 75,000 his team surveyed, all had been displaced at least once and some as many as 18 times.
"They are not expecting a full return and revival to what the marshes looked like," he said. "In fact, they don't want it."