UN effort to help restore Iraq’s ‘Garden of Eden’ marshes bears fruit

24 August 2005
Iraq’s fabled Marshlands of Mesopotamia

After a decade of decline and near destruction during the rule of Saddam Hussein, new satellite images show that Iraq’s fabled marshlands of Mesopotamia, considered by some to be the original “Garden of Eden,” are recovering at phenomenal speed, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) said today.

“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,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said of the marshlands which were ravaged by a vast drainage operation carried out by Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Almost 40 per cent of the marshlands have recovered to their 1970s condition and the new satellite images have revealed a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover over the last two years. Although more detailed field analysis of soil and water quality is needed to gauge the exact state of rehabilitation, UNEP scientists believe the findings are a positive signal that the marshlands are well on the road to recovery.

However, he noted that while the re-flooding bodes well for the marshes, their recovery will take many years. “We must continue to monitor the situation carefully and make the necessary long-term investment in marshlands management,” he said.

Iraq’s permanent wetlands total almost 9,000 square kilometres. But the marshlands dwindled to just 760 square kilometres in 2002. As of August 2005, The Iraqi Marshlands Observation System (IMOS) shows them at almost 3,500 square kilometres, or about 37 percent of the former 1970s extent. In the spring of 2005 the figure was nearer to 50 percent before shrinking with the high summer evaporation rates, UNEP said.

IMOS is the latest component of UNEP’s multi-million dollar marshlands project, launched a year ago with funding from the Government of Japan. The programme is helping Iraq restore the environment and provide clean drinking water for up to 100,000 people living in the marshlands.

UNEP said it is achieving this through a variety of activities ranging from dissemination of appropriate “environmentally sound technologies” (ESTs) to the establishment of an Internet-based marshlands information network and technical training.

Further studies released in 2003 showed that an additional 3 per cent, or 325 square kilometres, had gone. Experts feared the entire wetlands could disappear by 2008.

In 2001, UNEP released satellite images showing that 90 per cent of these fabled wetlands, home to rate and unique species like the sacred ibis and African darter, and a spawning ground for fisheries, had been lost.

With the collapse of the former regime in mid-2003, local residents began opening floodgates and breaching embankments to bring water back and satellite images indicated that by April 2004 around a fifth, or 3,000 square kilometres, had been re-flooded. The challenge now is to restore the environment and provide clean water and sanitation services, UNEP said.


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