A report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2001 alerted the world that only about 7 percent of the once-extensive marshlands remained. Satellite evidence showed the wetland complex UNEP called "a biodiversity center of global importance," that had once covered an area of 5,800 to 7,700 square miles (15,000 to 20,000 square kilometers), had shrunk to a 386-square-mile (1,000-square-kilometer) marsh straddling the Iran-Iraq border.
UNEP described it as one of the worst environmental disasters in history, ranking it with the desiccation of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforests. The marshlands are a breeding ground and stop-over point for migratory birds. The environmental degradation put an estimated 40 species of birds and untold species of fish at risk, and led to the extinction of at least seven species. Two other speciesthe Sacred Ibis and African Darterare near extinction.
Destruction of the wetlands was also devastating to agriculture and water quality, and many of the Marsh Arabs were forced to move to Iran or became internally displaced people in Iraq. In the long term, the drying of the marshes could contribute to climate change in the region.
The Eden Again report outlines preliminary plans for "at least partial restoration" of up to 1,500 square miles of marshlands territory.
The team understands the daunting challenges that lie ahead.
"If we can restore one-third of the marshlands, I would consider it a miraculous recovery," said Curtis Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center and a veteran of Florida Everglades restoration projects.
The problems are not simple, he warned, especially if there are high concentrations of salt and sulphate in the soil.
"Salt-encrusted land simply cannot absorb new water and the mixture of water into high sulfate areas would be toxic," he said.
The most promising candidate for restoration, scientists say, is the marsh that straddles the Iran-Iraq border east of the Tigris River, known as Hawr Al Hawizeh in Iraq and Al Azim in Iran. The Eden Again scientists call for the reintroduction of water to the Hawizeh marsh as soon as possible. Two other marshesAl Hammar Marsh, south of the Euphrates River and the Central Marsh located between the Euphrates and Tigris Riverswill require significant soil testing for salt and sulphate before any reclamation work is attempted. Neither of the two marshes is expected to achieve significant restoration.
Recovery will also require delicate diplomacy involving governments, aid and relief groups, and the people of the marshes.
UNEP is calling for a holistic river basin approach that involves all stakeholders, including the governments of Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
The aid group headed by Baroness Nicholson, Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees, has been providing care to Ma'adan refugees in Iran and has assembled a team of Iraqi and international scientists and engineers to help with the wetland reclamation. The group is also calling on the United Nations to designate the Mesopotamian marshlands as a world heritage site, which would provide added protection and funding.
"Our generation will be responsible for the deliberate extinction of one of the oldest people on Earth if we don't act fast," Nicholson said. "We certainly cannot allow this to happen."
Azzam Alwash is doing his part. He plans to travel to Iraq with a team of scientists in two weeks. While the technical problems of wetlands reclamation and the political problems of dealing with a transitional government rising from the ashes of years of oppression and a war are high on his agenda, they are not the key.
"This cannot work unless the process is led by the Marsh Arabs themselves," he said. "Eden Again will soon be a majority Iraqi Marsh Arab organization. They need to be the key stakeholders in this process."
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