Partial Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands May Be Feasible
Washington -- Despite what initially seemed to be irrevocable damage to the
marshlands of southern Iraq at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime, it now
appears that a significant portion of the wetlands may be restored as
sustainable managed ecosystems.
During a February 24 hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East
and Central Asia several witnesses testified that measures could be taken to
rehabilitate portions of the desiccated marshes.
"The good news in Iraq is that restoration is completely within the realm of
possibility. The difficulty lies in creating a just and equitable plan," said
Azzam Alwash, a civil engineer and manager of the Iraq Foundation's New Eden
project. The foundation, a non-governmental organization working for democracy
and human rights in Iraq, is sponsoring the Eden project to restore the southern
marshes. Alwash is a native of Al-Kut, situated at the northern end of the
"Following the Gulf War in 1991, rebel forces used the marshlands as a safe
haven in the southern no-fly zone," Alwash told the committee. "In a few short
years, Saddam drained them to allow access for his tanks to establish control in
the area. After they were dried, the marshes were burned and villages were
Alwash said that as many as 300,000 marsh dwellers died or fled their homes and
villages during the period.
Although the Iraqi engineer was living in the United States at the time, he said
that he heard rumors of the destruction that was occurring in the early 1990s
and added "In 2001, the United Nations Environmental Program published satellite
images demonstrating what they termed Ďa major environmental catastrophe that
will be remembered as one of humanity's worst engineered disasters.'"
University of Miami professor and water resources engineer Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm
offered a similar assessment of the extent of the ecological and social damage.
"Endangered species of birds are threatened by the marshland loss along major
flyways. Salt water has also intruded into waterways, adversely affecting local
freshwater commercial fisheries. The Ma'dan culture has essentially been
destroyed in violation of its members' human rights," he said.
He added that the wetlands "are also nursery grounds for shrimp migrating up
from the Arabian Gulf, which are of commercial importance to Gulf states such as
Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."
Gordon West and John Wilson of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
said, however, that some of the damage was reversible. In joint written
testimony, West and Wilson submitted the preliminary findings of studies
executed by USAID in Iraq during the summer of 2003.
Addressing the committee, Wilson noted, "There has been recent reflooding
throughout the marshlands. This reflooding is due to a combination of heavier
than normal snowfalls in the north and the deliberate destruction of structures
by people in the area, the opening of gates by the Ministry of Water Resources
and the release of water by Iran from the east."
He added, "The recent imagery from NASA shows that what was once seven percent
of the remaining wetlands is now about 30 to 40 percent."
In their joint written testimony, West and Wilson said that researchers had
taken water and soil samples from existing and recently reflooded marsh areas.
"The samples are being analyzed for a full range of parameters, including
salinity, toxicity, pesticides, heavy metals, and water vector diseases. The
team also did immediate data analyses on salinity, conductivity, total dissolved
solids, dissolved oxygen, and pH," they wrote.
They went on to note, "An interesting finding was that salinity was far lower
than had been anticipated. The salinity of most of the water was 1.0 part per
thousand (ppt) or less, rather than the 3.0-5.0 ppt expected."
They also observed, "The team found several areas of healthy regrowth of reeds
and other freshwater vegetation and wildlife." They said, "These regions may be
a seed source and faunal population base for restoring the drained marshes."
All of the speakers underscored the importance of working with local populations
to determine their needs and wishes before proceeding with restoration efforts,
noting that the residents were not unanimous in their desire to see the marshes
West and Wilson reported, "People in the marshlands suffer from an absence of
primary health care, malnutrition and contaminated drinking water.
Schistosomiasis, worms, and cholera are prevalent."
Addressing the committee, West said, "One of the primary causes of that is that
raw sewage from Baghdad is put into the rivers and it is a major challenge to
clean up the water in the rivers."
He added, however, that by this summer, "new [water treatment] facilities will
be online for a majority of the population in Baghdad."
West and Wilson also mentioned consistent complaints among the local population
about mosquitoes, saying, "The mosquito problem may have been worsened by the
reflooding of the marshes which do not have adequate fish in number to eat the
"People in the marshes are requesting clean drinking water, mosquito control,
employment opportunities, health care and improved security," they said. "They
ask for social services that have never been accessible to them in the past but
ought to be expected of any representative civil society in the future."
The USAID representatives also pointed to the growing pressure of upstream
demands on water as a limiting factor to the ultimate scope of the restoration
"By 2001, 32 dams were already built on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and
another 21 planned or under construction," Wilson said. "The total storage
capacity of dams on the Euphrates is already five times its annual flow."
"The dynamic scale and complexity of any effort to assist the Marsh Arabs to
rehabilitate the marshes will require an international partnership of donors,
humanitarian groups, technical experts and direct stakeholders working towards a
common vision of what is both desirable, realistically achievable and
sustainable," Wilson said.
He stated, "How much of the original marshland can be restored remains to be
determined. Water availability will be a key factor ultimately, and it is
unlikely that the marshes can ever be restored to their full glory. Nonetheless,
restoration of the marshes remains a high priority."
By David Shelby Washington File Staff Writer
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information
Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: