Iraq's Devastated Marshlands Recovering Fast, U.N. Says
NAIROBI The ancient Iraqi marshlands drained by Saddam Hussein as punishment against their occupants are back to almost 40 percent of their former level, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Wednesday.
In a rare good news story for Iraq, Nairobi-based UNEP said latest satellite imagery showed a "phenomenal" recovery rate for the southern marshlands, back to almost 3,500 square km after dwindling to just 760 in 2002.
Some scholars view the marshlands, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates river, as the site of the original "Garden of Eden" in the Bible.
Saddam began moving against the Marsh Arabs in the early 1990s, accusing them of supporting a Shi'ite Muslim uprising after the first Gulf War and harbouring criminals.
A combination of dams and canals blocked water from the marshes, turning what was once a pristine, wetland ecosystem into semi-desert and forcing all but 40,000 of the area's 450,000 inhabitants to flee.
But after the March 2003 war to topple Saddam, residents began returning and breaking the barriers, letting water again flow freely in a region where people had lived on small islands and moved on small wooden boats for thousands of years.
ANCIENT WAY OF LIFE
"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 Toepfer, 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."
UNEP said the marshlands totalled almost 9,000 square kilometres in the 1970s -- one of the world's largest wetlands with rare species like the Sacred Ibis bird.
While satellite images showed wetland cover back to nearly 40 percent of that in August, the figure was closer to 50 percent back in the Spring thanks to winter rains and snow melt in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, UNEP said.
"The new satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover over the last two years," it added in a statement. "While more detailed field 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."
Toepfer, however, warned that full reflooding would still take "many years" and must be carefully nurtured.
With funds from Japan, UNEP is running drinking water, sanitation and wetland management projects in the area where locals live an austere and deeply impoverished existence.
While the reflooding is positive for the environment, the region remains Iraq's poorest, with more than half the population unemployed, barely any primary schools and electricity reaching the area for just one hour a day.