Marsh Arabs get £6m to restore Eden

Posted: 26 July 2004

Author: Paul Brown

Japan is paying £6m to restore the marshlands of Mesopotamia, homeland of the Marsh Arabs, which the book of Genesis identifies as the probable site of the Garden of Eden.

A project to restore the marshlands, which once extended over 7,500 square miles but were systematically destroyed by Saddam Hussein, was announced yesterday by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Roaming Iraqi Marsh Arab refugees. © 2002 UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Geneva
Roaming Iraqi Marsh Arab refugees. © 2002 UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Geneva
Roaming Iraqi Marsh Arab refugees lead their water buffalo herds along the banks of the Karun River. (Iran, February 2002) © 2002 UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Geneva
Saddam ordered the draining of the marshes to destroy cover for rebel fighters, but this changed the weather patterns and turned a vast area into desert, releasing pollution into the Gulf.

The project will provide a haven for severely endangered wildlife, as well as decent living conditions for the 45,000 Marsh Arabs who clung on to the remnants of their homeland, and a further 40,000 refugees who have returned from Iran.

In 2001, Unep released satellite images showing that 90 per cent of these fabled wetlands, home to rare and unique species such as the Sacred Ibis and African Darter and a spawning ground for fish, had been lost.

Click here for maps showing the area of Mesopotamian marshlands in 2000 and 2002.

Further studies released in 2003 showed that an additional 3 per cent had gone. Experts feared that the entire wetlands, home to a people who are the heirs of the Babylonians and Sumerians, could disappear entirely by 2008.

Re-flooding the marshes

Since the fall of Saddam, the Marsh Arabs have breached the dams and blocked the canals that the dictator used to drain the wetlands, re-flooding the basins, which had become salt pans. By April this year, around one fifth of the marshes had been re-flooded.

Mesopotamian marshlands in 2002. © UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Geneva
Mesopotamian marshlands in 2002. © UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Geneva
Mesopotamian marshlands in 2002© UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Geneva

Mesopotamian marshlands in 2003. © UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Geneva
Mesopotamian marshlands in 2003. © UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Geneva
Mesopotamian marshlands in 2003© UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Geneva

These Landsat 7 satellite images contrast changes (highlighted in red) in May 2002 and May 2003, when spring snow melt in the highlands of Anatolia and Zagors mountains typically caused the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to flood and the marshlands to reach their maximum extent. As has been the case over the past decade, dams and drainage canals prevented the rivers from cresting and flowing into the marshlands in May 2002. When control structures were opened and levees broken by mechanical diggers in April and May 2003, however, water swept through the desiccated landscape inundating some areas. In these false colour images (bands 7,4,2), swollen rivers and canals and flooded areas appear black.

But the returning people have not had the resources to control the water and halt the pollution. Their health has been damaged through lack of clean drinking water and the discharge of untreated sewage direct into the marsh.

The project will initially target around a dozen settlements with small-scale water treatment systems, some of which are likely to be solar powered. Reed beds and other marshland habitats that act as natural water-filtration systems will be restored, which will benefit not only residents but will also provide new habitats for birds and other wildlife.

Dwindling water-flow

But the Unep restoration scheme, however successful, cannot hope to restore the wetlands to their former glory.

the lower stretches of the Karkheh River are badly depleted (Iran, February 2002). © 2002 UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Geneva
the lower stretches of the Karkheh River are badly depleted (Iran, February 2002). © 2002 UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Geneva
In the Dasht-E-Azadegan plains, the lower stretches of the Karkheh River are badly depleted and have become briny as the Karkheh dam became operational in April 2001. (Iran, February 2002)© 2002 UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Geneva
The water-flow down both the Euphrates and the Tigris has been severely reduced by the building of dams in Turkey, Syria and upstream in Iraq. By the time the rivers meet in the wetland before forming the Shatt al-Arab to flow into the Gulf, they are down to about 40 per cent of the flow of the 1970s.

Monique Barbut, director of Unep's division of technology, industry and economics which will be carrying out the project, said: "Nobody fully knows how much of the Marshlands can be recovered.

"We will be putting together, in close cooperation with the relevant Iraqi ministries, a 10-person team of local and international experts [but] the future of the Iraqi Marshlands will be tied to the eventual development of a masterplan covering regional cooperation with those countries upstream and downstream in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin."

Klaus Toepfer, Unep's executive director, said: "Half the world's wetlands have been lost in the past 100 years. I am sure that the lessons learnt during this project will provide important clues on how to resuscitate other lost and degraded wetlands elsewhere on the globe."

Paul Brown is Environment Correspondent for The Guardian.logoThis article was first published in The Guardian, (Saturday, 24th July 2004). All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.

Related links:

Iraq's 'Garden of Eden' turning to dust

The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem (UNEP Report, 2001)

Tbe 'Eden Again' Project

The AMAR International Charitable Foundation (Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees)

Monitoring Environmental Change in the Tigris and Euphrates Basins (UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Geneva)