Marsh Arabs' ancient homeland to be restored to former glory

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The Independent Online

The marshlands of southern Iraq, long regarded as one of the nurturing grounds of civilisation but turned into an arid salt bed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, are to be restored by the United Nations.

Saddam drained much of the Mesopotamian waters between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - home of the celebrated Marsh Arabs - by building dams, dikes and canals after the inhabitants supported a Shia Muslim rebellion following the 1991 Gulf war. The reed beds were also burned and the waters poisoned.

As a result, more than 500,000 people were displaced. By 2001, satellite images showed that 90 per cent of the original wetlands had been lost, and experts feared they could disappear altogether by 2008.

The largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, the marshes have enormous cultural significance. They have been identified as the site of the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood, and the birthplace of Abraham. Nearby lie an array of world-famous archaeological sites including Ur.

The marshes were home to an enormous range of wildlife. They were also vital to the fisheries of the Persian Gulf, filtering polluted water from northern cities and purifying it before it reached the southern rivers and the city of Basra.

It is now feared that up to 66 species of bird, including the sacred ibis and African darter, are now at risk, as are numbers of migrants such as the dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant and white-tailed eagle. A sub-species of otter and the bandicoot rat are believed to have become extinct.

Iraqi engineers and tribes began reflooding part of the wetlands by cutting gashes in dikes in the euphoria of Saddam's removal. Satellite images indicate about a fifth of the area had been reflooded, the UN Environment Program said.

However, experts say reflooding the marshes will need painstaking engineering if the balance of salt and plant life is to be restored.

"The challenge now is to restore the environment and provide clean water and sanitation services for up to 85,000 people living there," the UNEP said. A UN survey found that most Iraqis in the region were collecting water directly from the marshlands, that many settlements lacked basic sanitation and that waterborne diseases were commonplace.

The UN project, funded by Japan to the tune of £6m, will also aim to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, and will initially target about a dozen settlements for small water treatment systems. Reed beds and other habitats that act as natural water filtration systems will also be restored.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director, said: "Half the world's wetlands have been lost in the past 100 years. I am sure that the lessons learnt during this project will provide important clues on how to resuscitate other lost and degraded wetlands elsewhere on the globe."