Rapid revival for Iraq's 'Garden of Eden'

Posted: 1 September 2005

After a decade of decline in which the fabled Marshlands of Mesopotamia all but vanished almost 40 per cent have now recovered to their former 1970s extent.

North Hamar marshlandsPhoto: Jassim Al-Asadi Center for the Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands, Ministry of Water Resources
North Hamar marshlandsPhoto: Jassim Al-Asadi Center for the Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands, Ministry of Water Resources
North Hamar marshlandsPhoto: Jassim Al-Asadi Center for the Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands, Ministry of Water Resources
This phenomenal rate of recovery of the marshlands in southern Iraq, considered by some as the original biblical "Garden of Eden" and a key natural habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries, is revealed in new satellite images and data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The new satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover over the last two years, and while more studies of soil and water quality are needed to determine the exact state of rehabilitation, UNEP scientists believe the findings are a positive signal that the marshlands are well on the road to recovery (see: satellite imagery).

"The near total destruction of the Iraqi marshlands under the regime of Saddam Hussein was a major ecological and human disaster, robbing the Marsh Arabs of a centuries-old culture and way of life as well as food in the form of fish and that most crucial of natural resources, drinking water," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director. "The evidence of their rapid revival is a positive signal, not only for the environment and the local communities who live there, but must be seen as a contribution to wider peace and security for the Iraqi people and the region as a whole."

Marshlands project

The new findings come from the recently launched Iraqi Marshlands Observation System (IMOS), the latest component of UNEP's multi-million dollar marshlands project.

Marsh dwellings, North HamarPhoto: Jassim Al-Asadi Center for the Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands, Ministry of Water Resources
Marsh dwellings, North HamarPhoto: Jassim Al-Asadi Center for the Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands, Ministry of Water Resources
Marsh dwellings, North HamarPhoto: Jassim Al-Asadi Center for the Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands, Ministry of Water Resources
The project is helping Iraq restore the environment and provide clean drinking water for up to 100,000 people living in or near the Marshlands.

One of the world's largest wetland ecosystems totalling almost 9,000 square kilometres of permanent wetlands, the Iraqi marshlands dwindled to just 760 square kilometres in 2002. Last month, IMOS data revealed that the marshlands now cover almost 3,500 square kilometres, approximately 37 per cent of the former 1970s extent. In spring 2005, the figure was nearer to 50 per cent, shrinking with the high summer evaporation rates.

The different figures reflect the strong seasonal fluctuation in the marshlands ecosystem with extent of water cover reaching a maximum in March, following winter rains and spring snow melt in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Working closely with the Government of Iraq and local people, the Marshlands Project is providing drinking water, sanitation systems and wetland management skills to local people, as well as restoring reed beds and other habitats that act as natural water-filtration systems.

A Marshland Information Network, a website that lets those with an interest in the region share their ideas and strategies, is up and running. The project has also trained about 250 Iraqis in wetland management and restoration.

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