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Damaged Iraq marshes show renewed signs of life

Populations of many native fish, invertebrate animals, birds and plants are well on their way to recovery

The marshes of southern Iraq, devastated in recent decades by Saddam Hussein's regime, are showing a "remarkable" recovery, according to an ecological survey team led by scientists at Duke University and the University of Basrah.

In their latest and most thorough evaluation of the marshes -- claimed in some quarters to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden -- the researchers found that populations of many native fish, invertebrate animals, birds and plants are well on their way to recovery.

"When we first arrived in June 2003 with an exploratory team, soon after the start of the current military activities, there were serious questions about whether these areas could ever be restored," said Curtis J. Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center and co-leader of the team. "What's exciting is that when our Iraqi colleagues surveyed the area again in September 2005 -- it was too dangerous by then for American scientists to work there -- their data revealed that more than 40 percent of the marshes have been reflooded.

"What's even more exciting is that the team members recorded tremendous growth in the giant reeds that naturally made up most of the marshes, and they observed bird species that hadn't been seen in 25 years," he said. "In the three areas the team was able to survey, we have proof that an amazing recovery has now begun."

The researchers reported their findings in the June 2006 issue of the journal BioScience. Najah A. Hussain, a fisheries biologist at the University of Basrah, in Iraq, served as co-leader of the team.

The Mesopotamian marshes, which once were twice the original size of Florida's Everglades, were all but destroyed during the 1980s and 1990s by Hussein's troops, who ditched and diked the marshes to cut off the natural inflow of water from the nearby Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The intent, according to many observers, was to punish the people living there, known as Marsh Arabs, for their support of a Shi'a revolt following the first Gulf War.

Hussein's troops also reportedly killed tens of thousands of the Marsh Arabs, and tens of thousands more who were unable to pursue their traditional means of livelihood -- fishing, herding water buffalo and hunting -- fled to southern Iran.

When Richardson made his first trip to evaluate the marshes shortly after Hussein's downfall, he found that some of the remaining inhabitants had begun to blow up the dikes and dams. As a result, portions of the marshes had reflooded, and some native plants were beginning to re-establish themselves in the restored areas, Richardson said.

"That was good news," he said. "But the evaluation could be considered only preliminary, at best."

Official organizations soon launched more formal projects to restore the marshes, supported, in part, by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Richardson said.

During their latest ecological evaluation, Richardson and his colleagues found that in many respects the restored marshes are functioning at nearly normal levels. "The fast recovery of plant production, overall good water quality, and rapid restoration of most wetland functions seem to indicate that the recovery of ecosystem function is well under way," he said.

But the marshes still face problems, said Richardson, a professor of resource ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and chief science adviser to the USAID efforts to restore the marshes.

One major question is how much water the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will supply to the marshes in coming years, he said.

Heavy snowfall in the region over the past two years and the resulting snowmelt in Turkey have led to a strong flow of fresh water into the marshes, Richardson said. "But if there should be a drought, there may not be enough water in the rivers to feed the marshes," he said. "Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran also need water for people and agriculture. In fact, Iran is now building dikes to close off river water supplies to part of the last remaining natural marsh on its border with Iraq, reportedly so it can sell the water to Kuwait."

Iraq and neighboring countries also must use available water more efficiently and cut waste if they are to protect the long-term health of the marshes, Richardson said.

"For example, the continued use of the ancient method of flooding vast agricultural fields from open ditches, coupled with the extremely high evaporation rates that characterize these hot regions, results in massive losses of water to the atmosphere and increased soil salinity problems," he said. "Modern drip irrigation approaches used in other parts of the Middle East, which slowly feed water onto crops at a measured rate, need to be employed to preserve Iraq's dwindling water supply."

Other questions concern whether the marshes, which had been broken up by years of draining, can be sufficiently reconnected to restore and maintain species diversity, and whether the marshes can be protected if pressure builds to tap the vast quantities of oil believed to lie beneath them.

Even the extent of future monitoring and restoration efforts remains in doubt, because mounting political tensions in southern Iraq have made scientific work increasingly dangerous and funding for future efforts is problematic, Richardson said.

For example, Richardson and Hussain did not list in certain formal reports the names of some local scientists and students who participated in the study, so they wouldn't be made future targets of some people in the region who want no cooperation with the West. Also, the $10 million supplied by USAID for restoration efforts will be exhausted by the end of 2006, Richardson said.

"The long-term future of the former Garden of Eden really depends on the willingness of Iraq's government to commit sufficient water for marsh restoration and to designate specific areas as national wetland reserves," Richardson and Hussain wrote. "Political pressure from the international community to maintain water supplies flowing into Iraq will also be critical to the restoration of the marshes."

In recognition of his scientific research in marshes, including those in Iraq and in the Everglades, Richardson received the Environmental Law Institute's 2006 National Wetlands Science Research Award. Announced on May 10, the honor is co-sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

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