Restoring Iraq's MarshesUneven But Promising Results
Two fishermen in a mashoof (reed boat) work in the Al-Hawizeh marsh, the largest remaining intact marsh in Iraq. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Initial efforts to restore the devastated marsh area of southern Iraq, much of it drained by Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf war, have had uneven but promising results, according to the first comprehensive analysis of soils, water and ecological conditions in the region.
At the time of Saddam's overthrow by U.S. and coalition forces in April 2003, less than 10 percent of marshes in Iraq were fully functioning wetlands. Much of the area had become a dry, salt-encrusted wasteland, an environmental disaster that has been compared to the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the deforestation of the Amazon.
Soon after Saddam's ouster, Iraqis in the marsh areas began to breach embankments and floodgates, allowing waters from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and associated streams to flow into as much as 40 percent of the original marsh land.
In research reported at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and to be published in the 25 February issue of the journal Science, senior author Curtis Richardson of Duke University and his colleagues say reflooding has partly restored some of the marshes while others still suffer from high soil salinity, a residue of the evaporation of brackish waters created when freshwater flow into the marshes was halted.
The researchers found high water quality and non-saline soils only in the last remaining natural marsh, the Al-Hawizeh, located on the Iranian border. Even that marsh has been significantly reduced in area and is threatened by the construction of an Iranian dike.
Elsewhere, the reflooded Al-Sanaf marsh, where the water remains stagnant due to a dike system, is dominated by a salt-loving herb called glasswort. The eastern Al-Hammar marsh also has highly salty soil and high sulfur content as well. Native vegetation has not yet taken hold, with glasswort, saltbrush and salt-loving Athel trees predominant.
But the available datamuch of it collected by March 2004, when about 20 percent of the original marsh area had been refloodedsuggests the wetlands can be restored if sound ecological principles are followed, the researchers say. They cite particularly the need for adequate and constant flow of freshwater through affected areas.
The long-term outlook, Richardson said, "is highly promising," although it is complicated by factors beyond the immediate marsh area, including the possibility that Turkey and Iran could withhold water from streams and rivers that flow to the marshes.
At one time, the lush marshes, with common reed plants growing as high as 15 feet, harbored a thriving community of Marsh Arabs known as Madan. The population was estimated at between 350,000 and 500,000. Even before Saddam's decision to drain the marshes in retaliation for Marsh Arab participation in a southern uprising against his rule, the region had been under stress due to construction of 32 upstream dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, mostly since the 1960s.
Part of the challenge is to understand what was in place before the massive changes in the marsh ecology. The researchers note that the problem was compounded by the looting of the local offices of the Ministry of Water Resources and the consequent loss of data on the history of water flows in the area.
Azzam Alwash, an environmental engineer who grew up in the marsh area and is a co-author of the Science paper, will discuss the hydrology of the region and efforts to develop computer models that would use newly gathered field data to more accurately predict water circulation patterns in marshlands targeted for restoration.
Barry Warner of the University of Waterloo in Canada will report at the meeting on a painstaking vegetation survey of the marshes in the 1970s by an Iraqi scientist, M.R. Al-Hilli, that serves as a baseline for current restoration efforts. Warner said plant communities are re-establishing themselves fairly quickly in some marsh areas, with seeds borne in by water or wind. He said scientists also were encouraged to find that the local fresh water otter has been found back in the marshes.
Iraqis will have to determine for themselves how much marsh recovery is desirable, he said. "There certainly will be restoration," Warner said. "Whether we will get 80 percent back is probably unlikely, and perhaps maybe even undesirable. There are local people who have used some of the drained areas for agriculture" and living quarters. He said local Iraqi authorities have been doing a good job of consulting with the populace about the future of the area. He said one recent workshop in Nasiriyah on the future of the marshes was attended by more than 400 community leaders and government representatives.
[NOTE: These and other speakers will take part in a symposium titled "Can the Mesopotamian Marsh's Garden of Eden in Iraq Be Restored?" on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. in the Omni Shoreham, Lobby Level, Executive room, in Washington, D.C.]
19 February 2005