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Watering Eden

The Mesopotamian marshlands of Iraq, long a vital ecological oasis in a parched land, have shrunk to a tenth their expanse 10 years ago. Several international groups are weighing options to restore the wetlands once the war is over.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2003

For millenniums, thousands of square miles of lush marshes have anchored the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent - the cradle of Western civilization that arced up along the eastern Mediterranean coast, across northern Syria, and down along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf.

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Until 1991, as many as half a million "Marsh Arabs" who trace their ancestry to the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians called these wetlands home.

The marshes, sustained by annual flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, nurtured young fish and shrimp that later would sustain fisheries in the Gulf. And they have cradled several species of plants, fish, and birds unique to the region, as well as waterfowl traveling along one of the world's major migratory flyways.

Now, several groups are looking beyond the US-led war in Iraq for ways to restore at least some portion of these marshes, weakened by decades of dam-building, then shriveled to a tenth of their original expanse after Saddam Hussein drained them following a 1991 campaign to quash a rebellion in the area.

According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), the human-engineered collapse of the marshes and its effect on the region's inhabitants stand alongside deforestation in the Amazon and the drying of the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union as "one of the Earth's major and most thoughtless environmental disasters."

Last Sunday, at the end of the third World Water Forum in Kyoto, the UN released a report showing that since 2001, the remaining marshlands have declined by an additional one-third, heightening the sense of urgency. UNEP estimates that the remaining marshes could vanish in the next three to five years.

Indeed, Iraq's marshes have become the latest poster child for wetland destruction globally. In a statement issued at the forum's close, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer said, "The continued desiccation of the Mesopotamian marshlands confirms that more decisive and concrete action is needed" to save wetlands worldwide.

According to Mr. Töpfer, once the shooting stops, UNEP's post-conflict assessment team stands ready to help devise a restoration plan for the marshlands.

In addition, a small international team of scientists and engineers sponsored by the Washington-based Iraq Foundation is looking at the feasibility of marshland restoration in what has come to be called the Eden Again project.

And the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response (ISTAR) is expected to file a proposal with the US Defense Department within the next two weeks to send a team of ecologists, hydrologists, and engineers to look broadly at Iraq's water-management needs, including marsh restoration.

Limited fresh water

"The Tigris and Euphrates are Iraq's only sources of fresh water," says ISTAR director Harvey Rubin. "Management of that system will eventually determine the social, political, and economic stability of a post-Saddam Iraq."

The marshes - at least as they existed prior to 1991 - owed their existence to melting glaciers and rising sea levels following the end of the last ice age some 18,000 years ago. As the once-dry Persian Gulf filled in, the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as tributaries that tumbled out of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran and onto the flat Mesopota-mian plains 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, built an enormous river delta, pushing the Gulf's shoreline out to its current locations.

The freshwater marshlands - three large interconnected patches centered on the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates - are thought to have emerged from salt-water predecessors some 3,000 years ago.

Yet what geophysical pro-cesses took thousands of years to build, humans have nearly destroyed in a decade. According to documents captured after the 1991 Gulf War, as early as 1989, following the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Hussein's regime was worried about "subversive elements" in the marshland region. The government's blueprint for action included moving Marsh Arabs onto "dry land," where they would be easier to control.

When the Shiite Marsh Arabs, or Madan, rebelled against Baghdad after the Gulf War, the Republican Guard crushed the rebellion, and the government put the blueprint into action.

Iraqi officials have maintained that the government drained the wetlands to allow its oil industry to exploit oil deposits beneath the marshes. Indeed, at least one large canal had been on the drawing boards since the 1950s.

Policy to destroy Marsh Arabs