“Promising” Restoration of Iraq’s Marshes

The Financial Times has good news from the region that has become a symbol of Saddam Hussein’s erstwhile tyranny:

Iraq Marshes Can Be Partially Restored

The fabled marshes of Mesopotamia, largely destroyed by Saddam Hussein in one of the worst pieces of ecological vandalism in recent history, can be partially restored, scientists said on Sunday.

The first scientific assessment of the marshes in southern Iraq, al considered by some to have been the Biblical location of the Garden of Eden, was presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] meeting in Washington.

Saddam’s drainage programme – accompanied by the persecution and forced relocation of the Marsh Arabs who had lived there for 5,000 years – reduced the wetlands to 7 per cent of their original 20,000 sq km area. But some of the former marshland is already recovering, following the actions of local people who broke down Saddam’s dikes and dams after his regime fell in 2003.

The study by US, Canadian and Iraqi scientists showed a surprising rapid return of plants and wildlife to the areas that have been reflooded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. “The quality of the river water turns out to be much higher than many people had expected,” said Curtis Richardson of Duke University in North Carolina, the study leader.

“Immediately after [the overthrow of Saddam] we saw just a dozen birds in the marshes,” Prof Richardson said. “A year later, there were hundreds and now they are talking about many thousands.”

The question now turns to resource allocation — that is, whether the marshes will receive the environmental care necessary to become sustainable. Two challenges arise. The first concerns international relations, as the AAAS press release notes:

The researchers found high water quality and non-saline soils only in the last remaining natural marsh, the Al-Hawizeh, located on the Iranian border. Even that marsh has been significantly reduced in area and is threatened by the construction of an Iranian dike.


The long-term outlook, Richardson said, “is highly promising,” although it is complicated by factors beyond the immediate marsh area, including the possibility that Turkey and Iran could withhold water from streams and rivers that flow to the marshes.

The second concerns domestic politics:

Iraqis will have to determine for themselves how much marsh recovery is desirable, he said. “There certainly will be restoration,” Warner said. “Whether we will get 80 percent back is probably unlikely, and perhaps maybe even undesirable. There are local people who have used some of the drained areas for agriculture” and living quarters. He said local Iraqi authorities have been doing a good job of consulting with the populace about the future of the area. He said one recent workshop in Nasiriyah on the future of the marshes was attended by more than 400 community leaders and government representatives.

Could the newly elected assembly have a political opportunity here? After all, the Shiites must bargain and compromise in order to be effective, so perhaps they can begin by reaching out to a previously oppressed group. Yet such gestures could have limited payoffs, as the Times concludes:

Even the Marsh Arabs have somewhat ambivalent attitudes about restoration of the wetlands. Their population, estimated at 350,000 in 1950, is now little more than 100,000, none of whom are living in their original homes, Mr Reiss said. Their traditional way of life, documented by Wilfred Thesiger, Gavin Maxwell and other authors, was based on fishing, water buffalo herding and reed cutting. This is virtually extinct today and most of the remaining Marsh Arabs are impoverished sedentary farmers. But according to Mr Reiss, many of them feel it will be impossible to recreate their way of life and would prefer outside investment in conventional agriculture.


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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.