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Iraq: After Years Of Devastation, A Slow Resuscitation Of Marshlands Begins (Part 1)

The former regime of Saddam Hussein spent years successfully turning Iraq's vast wetlands into a desert in an ecological war designed to root out armed Shia opposition to his rule. Now, with Hussein gone, Iraqi and coalition engineers are slowly returning water to the marshlands and hundreds of thousands of people who once lived there have their first hopes of returning home. RFE/RL reports on the gradual revival of Iraq's wetlands in the first part of a two-part series.

Prague, 6 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The drying up of Iraq's vast wetlands, which once spread over some 20,000 square kilometers, was deliberate. But their gradual return to life as Saddam Hussein was toppled early this year began with an accident.

During the past decade, Hussein's regime spent millions of dollars to build dams and canals to halt the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into the marshes. To remove their dense reed thickets as hiding places for rebel groups, army engineers also built dikes to divide the wetlands into stagnant ponds. As the water evaporated, 90 percent of the marshes turned into a dry, salt-encrusted wasteland.

Baroness Emma Nicholson, a British member of the European Parliament, is the organizer of a charitable foundation, Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (AMAR), that helps the hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs who had to flee their land. She estimates that by the time coalition forces toppled Hussein's regime in April, only some 85,000 people remained in the marshes out of a population that once numbered up to half-a-million.

But now things are changing, beginning with what Nicholson called some "inadvertent" help to the marshlands from the Iraqi Army as it fled advancing British forces this spring. "Trying to stop the British troops from entering [Al-Basrah], [an effort] in which [the Iraqi Army] signally failed, they blew up a road, failing to recognize that it was one of the dams across the water that they themselves had built in 1991 on the instructions of Saddam Hussein," she said. "The blowing up of that dam had a magnificent reaction and 25 square kilometers of drained marshlands was quickly reflooded."

She said that the reflooding of the marshes near Al-Basrah inspired some of the marsh people still living near their old homes to destroy other dams and dikes themselves. As they did, they started what many hope will now be the gradual revival of an ecosystem which previously provided a bounty of fish, sugar cane, papyrus reeds, and livestock. The marshlands -- mostly located between the Tigris and Euphrates and near the Iran border -- were once rich enough not only to support the Marsh Arabs in a way of life almost unchanged since the time of the Sumerians but also to supply fish and other food to Iraq's cities.

Iraqi state irrigation engineers returning to work under the coalition have helped the revival further by opening the gates of one dam on the Euphrates and smashing some of the bulwarks that previously diverted much of that river's water into Hussein's Mother of All Battles Canal. The canal was deliberately built to send the river on a 260-kilometer detour around the wetlands and dump its water into the Persian Gulf. Iran has also helped by opening a dam on its side of the border to assist in reflooding the marshes near its territory.

Yet if some local areas of the marshlands are now coming back to life, far more work remains to be done before the region can even begin to recover the lush vegetation and bird life which once made it the largest wetlands in the Middle East.

Nicholson said that an organized effort is now needed to use heavy earth-moving equipment to fully disassemble the vast network of canals, pipelines, and dams Hussein's regime built up to drain the marshes. She said she hopes such efforts will come out of the assessment work that teams of U.S. engineers are now doing in the region as part of Iraq's overall reconstruction.

"[The] U.S. State Department made a big decision last year before the war that if the possibility arose they would do their very best to assist the marsh people to recover their territory and their former farming and fishing way of life," she said. "And since the war ended, U.S. State Department has tasked USAID, which is the overseas aid department of the U.S. government, to put in missions to see what could be done."

Nicholson continued: "A preliminary mission of U.S. scientists took place in July and August of this year and a second mission of two days a couple of weeks ago, and a third mission is planned. These are serious scientists who are sampling the water, the earth, and the air to see what they can do to help. Large sums of money will be needed and it doesn't necessarily need to be U.S. scientists, there are plenty of outstandingly good scientists in Iraq itself."

One question the scientists are studying is how to best reflood the marshlands so as not to damage their chances for a full recovery. A particular challenge is obtaining adequate supplies of water to completely flush away the thick encrustations of salt that now cover much of the area. If the salt is not completely flushed away, there is a danger that irrigating the land will simply produce lifeless salt ponds rather than thriving new marshes.

We will look at this and other challenges in Part 2 of this series, which examines the technical difficulties of restoring Iraq's wetlands. Part 2 will be issued tomorrow.