Water and hope flow again in Iraqi marshlands

Good news for those rebuilding Iraq: Mother Nature has pitched in. Water is returning to the Mesopotamian marshlands, turned into salt-encrusted desert by Saddam Hussein.

The marshlands used to cover nearly 8,000 square miles (larger than Maryland) in southern Iraq, above the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They have been known since ancient times as the Fertile Crescent and were said to be the biblical Garden of Eden. More than 5,000 years ago the Sumerians lived there and recorded in their artwork the domed reed houses and the newly domesticated water buffalo that have marked life in the marshes ever since.

In the 1980s, an estimated half million Shiite Marsh Arabs, or Madan, used the towering reeds to build their dwellings on tiny islands in the shallow marsh. They lived mainly on fish and on the birds that flocked to this vast resting place on the north-south flyway. They paddled their boats through the lagoons and labyrinthine channels among the reeds. Hunters came from afar to this magic place - and so, in Hussein's time, did those who wanted to escape his oppression. They were pursued, but with difficulty.

When the 1991 Gulf War ended, Washington urged the Madan to revolt. But Hussein had been allowed to keep his Army and his Air Force helicopters, and he threw them against the rebels in full fury. He also set about destroying their habitat. Enormous drainage canals were dug - termed the third river - and a great number of dams and levees built to block the flow of Tigris and Euphrates water into the area.

Within a few years, 95 percent of the wetlands turned to desert. Only one marsh remained, straddling the Iran-Iraq frontier and fed by an Iranian river. Most of the population was killed or forced to flee to other parts of Iraq - 100,000 fled into Iran. About 100,000 remained, mostly herded into dismal security settlements under the regime's thumb. Reed houses were set ablaze, the smoke visible in 1996 from the space shuttle Endeavour.

Heavy spring rains and snowmelt in the Anatolian highlands this year raised the rivers to flood level. Invading coalition forces damaged some dams and earthworks, and then the Madan joined in with shovels and mechanical diggers in April and May. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says their work attests to their belief in the power of nature to heal itself, a view that many scientists share. Monitoring the region with the help of satellite imaging, UNEP saw much of the desert inundated as floodgates were opened, embankments and levees breached and dams emptied upstream.

Return of the water had an immediate effect on the people whom the war had freed. They are fishing again from boats that had not floated for years. Water seems to hold the promise of reviving an old way of life. One young man, looking into the muddy brown stream, told a New York Times reporter in April, "It is like looking into the face of God."

For all that, the picture should not be romanticized. The devastation wrought by Hussein during more than a decade is likely to be at least as difficult to repair as that to the whole country - and will the missing people come back?

The full rehabilitation of the Mesopotamian marshlands, if it ever happens, will take much time and a major international effort. For instance, the water required comes essentially from the Tigris and Euphrates. But during the past 40 years, they have been cut by more than 30 large dams. Thus, the water tapped upstream for irrigation in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq is not available for the marshes. Iran, too, is involved.

Meeting this need will demand the farsighted, imaginative, persuasive diplomacy that the United States, having propelled itself into Iraq, has not shown for years.

Richard C. Hottelet is a former CBS correspondent.

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