US wants to restore part of Iraqi marshes
Author: Alan Elsner
Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Reuters that research showed "we could probably restore maybe 25 percent of the marshlands with the existing water flows."
"...We are looking at what is hydrologically feasible given the current technology and water flows," Natsios said.
The Iraqi marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were home to a unique culture and complex ecosystem that lasted thousands of years. The wetlands were largely drained by Saddam to punish the population for supporting a Shi'ite uprising against his rule that erupted after the 1991 Gulf War.
Nearly 300,000 Marsh Arabs, also known as Ma'adan, were bombed, rounded up by troops, killed or forced to march out of the wetlands. Many others disappeared while the marshes that sustained them turned into a salt-encrusted wasteland. Now, fewer than 20,000 remain.
A report released by the United Nations Environment Program in 2001 found only 7 percent of the once-extensive marshlands remained. UNEP described the deliberate destruction as one of the worst environmental disasters in history, ranking it with the desiccation of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of the Amazon rain forests.
Last month, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said efforts were needed to revive the marshes, but it would be a difficult and complex project.
"We are not blue-eyes optimists, and we know that this cannot be done tomorrow," he said.
In the interview on Friday, Natsios said much of the water that once fed the marshes had been diverted by flood controls and dam systems put in by Iran, Syria and Turkey to use the headwaters of the rivers.
"The consequence of that is that there is not enough water flow in either river to restore the marshes to what they were," he said.
The marshlands once played a crucial environment role, cleaning the water flowing down river of impurities and providing a breeding ground and stop-over point for migratory birds.
Scientists said the flow of detritus from the marshes into the Gulf had also supported fish populations. The environmental degradation put an estimated 40 species of birds and untold species of fish at risk, and has already led to the extinction of at least seven species.
Thomas Crisman, director of the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands at the University of Florida, and a member of a team that recently reported on the feasibility of restoring the marshes, said many factors would be involved.
"It's not instant coffee where you just add water," he said. "It's the quality as well as the quantity of the water available and the timing of the flow of that water, as well as the willingness of people to return."
Crisman said Natsios was premature in trying to predict how much can be restored.
"What we're trying to figure out is how to restore the ecology and at the same time try to figure out how to restore a culture," he said.
The Ma'adan settled deep in the marshes, moving around by boat. They made elaborate dwellings out of thick reeds that sat on woven mats suspended above the water.
Rapid evaporation has left some areas with salt crusts 2 feet deep. Unless fresh water is pumped through at sufficient speed, they will become lifeless salt ponds.
Human rights groups have called the assault on the marshes and its people genocide, and said it could be among the charges if Saddam is ever prosecuted for war crimes.