Project to restore wetlands destroyed by Saddam begins

A project has begun to reverse one of the greatest humanitarian and ecological disasters of recent times, the draining of the wetlands that were home to Iraq's 250,000 Marsh Arabs.

Saddam drained the wetlands after the Marsh Arabs, whose world of reed houses, water buffalo and canoes captivated the writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, supported the Shia revolt in the early Nineties.

Some experts believe it may not be possible to recreate a way of life which had existed for 5,000 years in the largest wetlands in the Middle East.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, the MEP whose organisation Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (Amar) has campaigned for the reflooding of the marshes for more than a decade, said: "It is shameful that this was ever allowed to happen at all. There is still justice for the Marsh Arab people waiting to be fulfilled.'' Backed by the international community, Iraq's Ministry of Irrigation has given the order to reflood six sections of land, the biggest in al-Huweiza near the Iranian border. "Now there is water they have started to fish again, their horticulture has returned. Nobody can tell how it will work. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of research has been done,'' said Lady Nicholson.

While official estimates suggest that only 40,000 Marsh Arabs, who are also known as Madan, live on the land at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - the rest having fled to Iran or other areas including south of Basra - Lady Nicholson said that more than double that figure remain.

Forced into indentured labour, growing low-grade wheat for the government on salty, dry land, they yearn for a return of their old life, she said yesterday. Amar, in conjunction with the American government agency USaid and Middle Eastern environmentalists, has been negotiating with Turkey to allow more water through.

But others are less sure that the environmental damage can be reversed, insisting that simply reflooding the area will not necessarily restore the plant and animal life that once existed.

"It may be irreversible. You are not going to see the return of 200,000 livelihoods, which have been destroyed. It could take a 30-year lifecycle; what do you do about livelihoods for these people in the interim?" said Dominic d'Angelo, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority South in Basra. There is also the question of how many of the Marsh Arabs really want to return to the old ways. Some have grown up in cities and do not want a rural lifestyle; others have built up small farms which would be lost in the reflooding.

"Obviously there will be an impact on people who lost their livelihoods and created new livelihoods. Everyone's interests have to be taken into account,'' said Mr d'Angelo. He said that in an area which has a myriad of tribal, religious and community leaders, reaching a final decision would not be easy or swift.

While some estimates put the cost at £62m, the final bill will not be known until the exact parameters of the project are decided.

"How do you get the international community to agree on funding a project which has not been agreed by the people it will affect?'' Mr d'Angelo said.

Lady Nicholson insisted that claims that some of the Marsh Arabs would not want reflooding were "baseless" and circulated by those with an interest in the oil-rich area. "Many people who have an interest in not wanting the marshes restored are taking the voice of the marsh people and using it against them," she said. "They want their lives back and for them to be better than it was under Saddam Hussein.''