Iraq's Eden: Reviving the Legendary Marshes

Afshin Molavi
for National Geographic News
May 1, 2003
Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi exile living in California, remembers the
breathtaking beauty of Iraq's southern marshlands that he visited as a
boy. He remembers the smiling hospitality of the Marsh Arab people, the
quiet waterways where he floated on wooden boats, the beautiful cathedral-
like homes constructed of reeds, and the swarms of colorful birds in the
skies above.

He promised his wife that they would one day visit the lush, biologically diverse, and historically rich region that lies between the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Today, there's not much to visit. In 1991, shortly after the first Persian Gulf war ended, Saddam Hussein's government, angered by Marsh Arab participation in the southern uprising against his rule, launched an assault on the southern wetlands and the nearly 300,000 Marsh Arabs, known as Ma'adan, who call the region home. The assault included burning villages, summary executions and "disappearances," and a multi-year, sophisticated campaign of water diversion and marsh drainage that has reduced roughly 93 percent of the marshes to dry, salt-encrusted wasteland.

Extensive damming by Turkey and Syria beginning in the 1950s in the upper Tigris-Euphrates river basin also negatively impacted the marshlands, but the majority of the destruction of the teeming Iraqi wetlands that are larger than Florida's Everglades began with Saddam Hussein's campaign.

Human Rights Watch called the campaign "a crime against humanity." Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, president of an aid organization devoted to helping Iraq's Marsh Arabs, called it "the deliberate extinction of one of the oldest races in the world."

In response to the horrific evidence of what he calls "the destructive sophistication" wielded by Hussein's engineers, Alwash, a civil engineer who earned his doctorate from the University of Southern California, and his wife Suzie, a geology professor at El Camino College, decided to do something about it.

They began searching for any data they could find on river flows, previous wetland reclamations, the specifics of Saddam Hussein's drainage methods, even poring over dusty dissertations in the libraries at the University of California, Los Angeles. They also picked the brain of Alwash's father, an Iraqi irrigation engineer, who immigrated to the United States after the first Persian Gulf war.

In 2002, they formed the Eden Again project, assembling a cast of international scientists, engineers, anthropologists, and hydrologists to develop a plan to restore the marshes.

The group is "not seeking to do the restoration ourselves," said Suzie Alwash. "This must be done by the people of the region. We hope that our group can provide some scientific support and a forum for stakeholder discussions. It is critical that all stakeholders, especially the Marsh Arabs themselves, are intimately involved."

The group issued its preliminary report April 29 in Washington, D.C.

Garden of Eden

The Mesopotamian Marshlands are an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Some Biblical scholars believe the region to be the site on which ancient stories of the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood are based. Up until a dozen years ago, the Ma'adan led a life characterized by fishing, farming, weaving, hunting, and grazing water buffalo, a life not entirely unrecognizable to their Babylonian and Sumerian ancestors 5,000 years ago.

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 species—the Sacred Ibis and African Darter—are 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.

Eden Again

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 marshes—Al Hammar Marsh, south of the Euphrates River and the Central Marsh located between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers—will 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.

Involving Stakeholders

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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