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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 marshlands.

"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 destroyed."

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 reflooded.

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 larvae."

"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 project.

"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:



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