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Rebirth of a wetland

Report to urge international aid to help restore Iraq's marshes

By Camille Feanny

Iraq marshes begin their recovery.
Middle East
Water Supply
Environmental Issues

(CNN) -- The drained and dammed marshlands of Iraq could soon be flooded with wildlife if a planned restoration project gets international support.

That's according to scientists who will issue the first report assessing the health of the wetland, scheduled for release in the February 25 edition of the journal Science.

The study, titled "The Restoration Potential of the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq," began in 2003 to investigate the ecological health of the embattled wetland, determine its ability to support a growing Marsh Arab population and restore the overall ecosystem.

The once-lush marshlands were among the world's most productive, and the largest wetland area in the Middle East. At its peak, the region was a primary destination for millions of migratory birds, while abundant wildlife and plants flourished.

Marsh Arabs, also known as the Ma'adan, made their homes in the marshes. Their ancient culture can be traced back 5,000 years, and their livelihood depends directly on fishing and farming among the reeds.

But years of internal conflict and wars led to the near destruction of the wetlands and brought much of the life that once existed there to the brink of collapse.

The U.S. Agency for International Development funded the report, which was conducted by an international team of scientists, engineers and other experts. They determined that while some areas of the wetland show signs of improvement, only a fraction of the original 15,000-square-kilometer marshes remain intact.

"We can see from the satellite images that by 2000, all of the marshes were pretty much drained except for 7 percent on the Iranian border," says the report's principal author, Dr. Curtis Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center in North Carolina.

Scientists conducted comprehensive tests of the water, soil and environmental health of the region. To date, about 30 percent of the marshes have been re-flooded due, in large part, to local tribes who breached dams and dikes in 2003.

But researchers observed that some of those areas have become inundated, and it will be sometime before they can assess if the re-flooded areas can recover fully. Also, after years of seawater intrusion, some land is unable to support viable life.

The researchers say that although the wetland's full recovery is a long way off, there are some positive observations:

  • Tests of the water quality in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were better than expected.
  • Several species of bird, plant and animal life have begun to return.
  • Scientists discovered carp -- a species of fish common to Iran -- living in the water.
  • Veterinarians have been brought in to help restore the water buffalo population, important to Marsh Arabs.
  • Marshes near death

    Since the 1960s, attempts to harness the valuable water and oil resources in the region have proved disastrous for the environment.

    In the '60s and '70s, several dams were constructed on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to provide abundant water for irrigation and to generate hydroelectric power. The structures blocked natural water flow from vast areas of the wetlands and altered the area's ecology. Now, more than 30 dams dot the landscape.

    In the mid-'80s, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein built dikes and levees to divert water from the area to exploit the oil reserves.

    The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) led to the near-death of the wetland and its people. As punishment after the mostly Shiite Ma'adan helped to hide rebels fighting Saddam's Sunni-led regime, areas of the wetlands were bulldozed, poisoned and drained.

    After the fall of Iraq's Baathist government in 2003, the Marsh Arab population began to rebound. Recent reports indicate that about 100,000 Marsh Arabs have returned to their homeland and are attempting to reclaim their former way of life.

    But experts say it may take years for marsh habitat to provide the resources needed to sustain a growing population.

    Many challenges ahead

    Experts acknowledge that returning the lush vegetation, rich fisheries, wildlife and other natural systems to the wetland will benefit the entire region. However, restoring the marshes will depend largely on the available water supply, requiring Iraq's neighbors to loosen their lock on the resource.

    Much of the water in the region remains under the control of countries such as Turkey and Iran whose dams, dikes and other man-made structures divert vital reserves.

    The negotiation process could be slowed as countries seek a plan that helps the marshes without hurting their economies. Early signs indicate that some are open to the discussion.

    "There is interest in Kuwait and Iran regarding cooperation on the issue of restoration, as the dried marshes adversely affects all three of those countries and others on the [Persian] Gulf," says Dr. Azzam Alwash of the Iraq Foundation, one of the organizations seeking to rebuild the marshes.

    "Turkey and Syria need to also be engaged to help in the management of the water resources of the entire basin."

    The age-old battle between economics and the environment has a major impact on this ancient wetland, and Alwash concedes that with a $500 million price tag attached to this effort, constructing a successful long-term restoration plan for the marshes may include a delicate balance of allowing companies to extract the oil reserves while shouldering some of the costs of preserving the natural resources.

    "I submit to you that oil companies should take the challenge of helping restoration while also developing the oil resources of the area," Alwash says.

    For an ecological restoration effort of this magnitude, scientists say that technology will be at the foundation to constructing their plan. Some of the projects will include:

  • Developing an effective computer model to manage the limited water resources in the region.
  • Improving the irrigation network of gates and channels to allow for the continual flow of noncontaminated water into and out of the marshes.
  • Consistent soil and water testing in an effort to rebuild the agricultural and aquatic infrastructure.
  • Establishing a long-range monitoring plan for the entire ecosystem.
  • Alwash says the plan is multitiered and focused on working in the long term.

    He says that although the ecology in Iraq's marshes has been severely degraded, the objective foundation of the team's restoration plan is to return some parts of the wetland to near-natural conditions. This, the team says, will give the environment a good foundation on which it can rebuild.

    "With the existing water resources, we think that approximately 40 [percent] to 50 percent of the marshes can be restored, and we should never underestimate the capability of nature to recover," Alwash says.

    "I expect that the majority of the work is going to take place in the next five years, but the involvement in monitoring and management is going to go on forever."

    Ultimately, experts say that restoring a healthy ecosystem will take considerable time, international cooperation and monetary support.

    Despite the challenges, scientists working on the project remain committed to the task of restoring the wetland widely believed to be the birthplace of civilization and home to the biblical Garden of Eden.

    "They are essentially the largest wetlands in the Middle East, home to millions of birds on the Asian flyway to Africa, and home of the Marsh Arabs who've been there for 5,000 years," says Richardson.

    "They're unique [to] that part of the country and an important filter for much of the waters in the Persian Gulf."

    CNN's Kiesha Porter contributed to this report.

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