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Iraq: Efforts Under Way To Focus Attention On Plight Of Marsh Arabs

There is a growing campaign to restore Iraq's southern marshes, the vast area of wetland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region has been inhabited for the last 5,000 years but was largely destroyed over the past 10 years by Saddam Hussein's regime, in retaliation for the Marsh Arabs joining the Shi'ite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. One expert calls it both genocide and "ecocide," for the damage to the marsh's plants and animals.

Prague, 21 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's lush southern marshes -- reputed to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden -- have been inhabited for the last 5,000 years. In such a hot climate, water is precious, and it was the fresh water of the marshes that first attracted the ancient people of Mesopotamia.

The Marsh Arabs have their own culture and speak a language slightly different from the Arabic used by the rest of the country. They construct floating houses from reeds and mud. They created their own style of architecture, building large, arched bamboo halls for public meetings and assemblies. They are known as the first people in history to learn how to control the flow of water by building dams.

Emma Nicholson is a member of the European Parliament and is its special rapporteur on Iraq. She has taken a special interest in the plight of the Marsh Arabs and met recently with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to urge that they be adequately represented in the new Iraqi administration.

"The Marsh Arabs had a special way of life," Nicholson told RFE/RL. "For 5,000 years or more, they had lived a water-based life. They were fisher folk, but more than that. They were water farmers. They had water buffalo. They produced a third of the dairy products from those thousands of water buffalo for the whole of Iraq. A third of the dairy produce for the whole of Iraq! [They were] hugely productive people. They caught fish. Millions of fish were sold throughout the Gulf. They were a major trading source of fish. They grew rice. They were aquaculturalists -- self-sufficient. And they had this enormous zone of water."

And it was just this zone of water -- about 30,000 square kilometers in size -- that created a problem for the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

In 1991, the Shi'ite Marsh Arabs joined the failed Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq. While the revolt on dry land was easily crushed by Hussein's forces, the Marsh Arabs remained largely unreachable. This was exactly how the marsh people had survived for thousands of years. When the enemy came, they destroyed small dams built to control the flow of the rivers and remained in the marshes, surrounded by water, waiting for their attackers to leave.

Nicholson continued: "What Saddam did was carve a huge channel in the middle of the marshland, which he called 'The Mother of All Canals,' which diverted the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates from this great, life-giving irrigation, which supported so many people and so much trade for so long. And the water now pumps uselessly out directly into the [Persian] Gulf."

A study by the United Nations Environment Program in 2001 found that 90 percent of the marshlands had been destroyed by Saddam.

Some 10 years ago, Nicholson created a charitable foundation called Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (AMAR) to help those Marsh Arabs who had fled to Iran when the drainage of the marshes began. There are about 75,000 still living in refugee camps in Iran. Some 100,000 to 200,000 dispersed inside Iraq.

According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, some 250,000 Marsh Arabs had been living in the wetlands as recently as 1991. After what it calls "enforced 'disappearances,' torture, and the execution of political opponents," combined with the "ecological catastrophe" of the marsh drainage, fewer than 40,000 remain.

Discussions about the possible drainage of Iraq's marshes had been taking place for decades. In fact, British specialists drew up the first plans for the development of the marshes in the late 1940s. The marshes are believed to cover one of the biggest oil deposits in Iraq.

But until the early 1990s, no one had ever dared to actually drain the wetlands.

Joseph Dellapenna is a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law in Pennsylvania and a rapporteur for the Water Resources Committee of the International Law Association. He also has been serving as a consultant to the AMAR foundation.

Dellapenna noted that Hussein turned the marshes into desert but did nothing to develop the area in return. This, more than anything else, Dellapenna told RFE/RL, revealed the true intentions of the Iraqi leader. "What makes this a crime under international law was its purpose," he said. "And I think the purpose was fairly clear, which was to destroy a culture and to destroy a people. And that's genocide. And genocide is an international crime. It's a crime against humanity."

Dellapenna said it was also an ecological crime, what he calls "ecocide," but notes there is no legal instrument under international law to prosecute anyone for the destruction of a unique ecological system.

The marshes served as a stopping point for birds migrating every year to and from Africa and Siberia. The drainage of the Iraqi marshes destroyed one of the sustaining factors of this migration. There is no other wetland like it in the region.

The drainage of the marshes also affected the quality of water in the Persian Gulf, since the marshes served as a filter for the river water after it passed through the heavily developed agricultural areas of Iraq.

It is not known whether it is possible to fully restore the marshes. Even if it is possible, some say it will require a huge investment of money and effort that the country can ill afford right now.

Nicholson disagrees. She said the marshes can be reclaimed cheaply, while also believing that members of the former Iraqi regime should be prosecuted for their crimes against the Marsh Arabs in the International Criminal Court.

"Ah, but Mother Nature can restore the marshes. Remember, these marshes have been artificially destroyed very, very recently," Nicholson said. "Indeed, why the International Criminal Court could be used is because subsequent to their formation on 1 July 2002, the drainage has continued, the destruction of the drinking water has continued. It's now down to the last 8 or 10 percent, but it's still going on. All you need to do is to reverse the damage. And the damage, of course, is very primitive. It's the massive dam in the marshes and the building of the canal. You frankly don't need investment. You need a few sticks of dynamite with each dam to get rid of them."

A nongovernmental organization based in Texas has been working for the last two years to determine if it is possible to restore the marshes. The group was created by Azzam Alwash, a native of southern Iraq, and his wife, Suzie. The project is called Eden Again.

For the last several months, a team of scientists brought together by the group has been trying to determine what would be needed immediately to try to bring back the marshlands of Iraq.

"One of those first actions that we need to do is preserve the plants and animals," Suzie Alwash told RFE/RL. "There is one remaining area of marshlands, and that is the area that straddles the Iran and Iraq border. That needs immediate water back into it. We hope to convince the Iraqi government, the Iraqi authorities, to return water back to that area as early as this November, when the initial flood starts. That's going to preserve the plants and animals that could be used later to help bring them and redistribute them to other areas of the marshes."

Eden Again is thinking of starting a pilot project in areas that have been dry for 10 to 12 years. First, a survey is needed of how many people would like to return to the marshes. Suzie Alwash said the group's talks with Marsh Arab refugees have been reassuring. "They want to go back, and they want to go back to their natural lifestyle. But in addition to being able to go in the marshes and fish and live their traditional lifestyle, they want more. They want clean water. They want security. They want sanitation. They want a good education for their children. They want proper health care. They want more than just the traditional lifestyle. And I think it is going to take some creativity to bring all of those choices together," she said.

The other problem is whether the people of Iraq would want to see such a huge investment in the reclamation of the marshes while the country's overall water-supply system is collapsing.

As Dellapenna points out, it is a striking contradiction. Saddam Hussein invested the country's limited resources in the drainage of the wetlands, but little was spent by the regime on improving the public water supply.