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Iraq: Reviving Marshland Ecosystem Takes More Than Flooding Drained Areas (Part 2)

The former regime of deposed President Saddam Hussein spent years successfully turning Iraq's vast wetlands into a desert in an ecological war designed to root out armed Shi'a 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 now have hope of returning. In the second part of a two-part series, RFE/RL reports on the technical challenges of reviving Iraq's wetlands.

Prague, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi and coalition engineers have begun selective reflooding of parts of Iraq's former wetlands. Some of the marsh people still living in the area have sought to speed the process by destroying the canals and dikes that Hussein's regime built to drain the area.

But scientists say that fully restoring the marshes is a long-term effort that will require far more than merely dismantling Hussein's dams to succeed. It also will require solving some tough regional disputes that currently limit the amount of water available in Iraq's two great rivers -- the Tigris and Euphrates -- for refilling the wetlands.

Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the Iraq Task Force of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Geneva, says that completely reconstituting Iraq's marshes would require enormous supplies of water. That is because the drained wetlands not only have to be reflooded, they first must be flushed clean of thick encrustations of salt that were left behind when their waters evaporated. If the land is reflooded before those salt crusts are fully removed, the result will not be a new marshland but a wasteland of lifeless salt ponds instead.

However, finding such large amounts of water is not easy. The only sources are the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which formed the marshes originally. But those rivers no longer run as powerfully through Iraq as they once did because countries farther upstream have built dams over the past decades to harness them for electricity and irrigation projects.

Haavisto says the dam building in upstream countries began reducing water flow into the marshes as early as the 1950s and that continued dam construction and irrigation projects over the past decades, particularly in Turkey, have only compounded the problem.

"We have had different hydrologists and ecologists describe the current situation and the possible future prospects, and there has been a very clear signal that the increase in dams, particularly on the Turkish side, is limiting the water flow, so all the water [for the marshes] has not disappeared due to Saddam's [Hussein] dam building but also [due to activities] in neighboring countries," Haavisto said.

Fully reviving Iraq's marshes would require convincing Ankara and Damascus to release more water to Baghdad at the expense of development projects in their own countries. But the prospects of either state doing so are not good. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey already have a decades-long history of arguing over how to share regional waters. Reviving the marshlands now becomes yet another chapter in that dispute.

As Haavisto notes, there are few issues in the world as contentious as trans-boundary river problems -- and in the Mideast, where water is a precious commodity, they are particularly thorny. He says that -- by the most optimistic assessments -- Iraq may be able to obtain enough water only to refill about one-third of its former wetlands.

"People who have experience with trans-boundary river problems are not too optimistic that these water-flow issues could be solved with the neighboring countries and the marshes could be refilled totally again. The most optimistic figure that I have heard would be around 30 percent recovery of the marshes," Haavisto said.

At the same time, arrangements must be made within Iraq itself to ensure that farms and other businesses upstream from the marshes cooperate in freeing up water for the restoration efforts. UNEP had planned to convene a local water users conference within Iraq to build support for reviving the marshes but has recently had to indefinitely postpone the work due to the poor security situation in the country.

The UN confirmed today that all of its international staff have left Baghdad following a pullout ordered last month by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

One more major problem facing the marshlands is how to remove contaminants introduced by Hussein's efforts to turn them into either desert or farms. In some cases, the former marsh vegetation was burned, leaving the soil too acidic to support new plant growth. In other cases, farmers and industries moving onto the land have left it covered with commercial toxins from fertilizers and other products.

Before many areas can be reflooded, they will have to be tested for contaminants so that the agents can be removed to prevent them from entering the new marshland ecosystem.

Scientists say Iraq's marshlands can recover within just a few years if they are reflooded in a planned operation that adds water in the right quantities and with the right timing.

Thomas L. Chrisman is director of the University of Florida's Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands, located in the United States. He has said the marshes could "approximate the look and function of a natural wetland" again after five or six years.

Experts note that Iraq's marshland ecosystem has already proved hardy enough to survive for millennia, with local areas repeatedly shifting between desert and wetland as the rivers that feed them meander and change course. The dry sediment of former marshlands retains the seeds and nutrients necessary for a new ecosystem, and fish that have died off can be reintroduced from other areas where the wetlands still survive.

The only necessary ingredient, of course, is water.