From: Hans Greimel, Associated Press
Published August 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Japan Scrubs Iraq Marshland Donor Conference amid Constitution Negotiations

TOKYO — A donors conference to coordinate the revival of southern Iraq's once-lush marshlands has been canceled because of the ongoing stalemate in Baghdad over the country's constitution.


The summit had been scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Tokyo but was postponed after Iraqi Environment Minister Nermin Othman was needed at home for constitutional negotiations, said Robert Bisset, a spokesman for the U.N. Environment Program.


A new date and location have not been decided. Japan, which called off the meeting in consultation with UNEP, may offer to host a rescheduled event but must first discuss the matter with Iraq, the U.N. and other donors, Foreign Ministry official Yoshiko Nagayama said.


The United Nations had hoped the conference would raise more money for restoration and coordinate projects by Japan, the United States, Canada and Italy. The delay follows a UNEP announcement Wednesday that the marshlands have made a rapid recovery since being nearly decimated under the regime of Saddam Hussein.


"Everybody's waiting to see what happens in Iraq with regard to the constitutional process and the question of elections there," Bisset said. "There are a lot challenges ahead, that's for sure."


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Late Monday, Iraq's parliament delayed a vote on the new constitution after Sunni Arab negotiators rejected a draft accepted by Shiite and Kurdish officials.


Among the challenges facing marshland restoration is balancing environmental factors with the economic needs of the people who live there, including demand for roads and electricity, Bisset said.


Saddam drained much of the Mesopotamian waters between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the 1990s -- building dams and canals to pull away water -- in an apparent punishment because the marsh inhabitants supported a Shiite rebellion after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.


Of the almost 3,600 square miles of marshes in 1970, the area shrank by 90 percent to 300 square miles by 2002. As recently as 2001, some experts forecast the marshlands would disappear by 2008.


Instead, the new satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover, with the marshes rebounding to about 37 percent of their 1970 reach, the UNEP said Wednesday.


Bisset said the rescheduled donor conference will not target a certain amount of pledges but try to establish a common strategy for long-term investment in marshland management.


The largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, the marshes provide a crucial route for migratory birds, support endangered species, sustain freshwater fisheries and support the marine ecosystem of the Persian Gulf.


About one-third of the estimated 300,000 people who were forced to leave the area after the marshes were drained have now returned. Residents live in reed shanties and drain their sewage into the marshes.


Source: Associated Press


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