Saddam drains life from Arab marshes: Scientists fear Iraq's historic wetlands face destruction in 10 to 20 years, says Andrew North

SOUTHERN Iraq's ancient marshlands, the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, and home to the Marsh Arabs for nearly 5,000 years, will disappear within the next 10 to 20 years if the Iraqi government continues to drain them.

That is the conclusion of a study of environmental changes in the marsh region, an area slightly smaller than Wales, carried out by a team of scientists. Of 5,800 sq miles of marsh and lake in 1985, 57 per cent had been turned into dry land by 1992, the authors claim. The evidence for this claim comes from detailed study of satellite images.

This transformation has irreversibly damaged much of the wildlife of the marshland, which is classified as of global importance by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The study dismisses Iraqi claims that the draining is necessary for agricultural purposes. It concludes that the engineering schemes 'cannot result in any form of sustainable development and cannot be regarded in any way as a wise use of one of the world's most significant biological and cultural resources'.

The central Qurnah marshes 'essentially no longer exist as an ecosystem', says the co-ordinator of the report, Edward Maltby, head of the Wetland Ecosystem Research Group at Royal Holloway, University of London. Water that previously fed this marsh has been diverted since mid-1993 into a 42-mile-long canal, known as the Mother of Battles project, and now flows into the Persian Gulf.

Dr Maltby's greatest concern is that the Hammar marsh, in the southern part of the region, will disappear. This would be a disaster, he says, because it is biologically the most diverse.

More than half the flow of the Euphrates, which feeds this area, is now diverted before it reaches the Hammar marsh. A causeway constructed west of Qurnah in the last two years prevents water from the Mother of Battles canal feeding the marsh.

At risk in the Hammar and Hawizah marshes are 14 types of rare birds. They include two endemic species, the Iraq Babbler and the Basra Reed Warbler, according to Derek Scott, the ornithological specialist in the study team.

The draining disrupts the area's role as an important staging area for waterfowl, migrating between breeding grounds in Siberia and Central Asia, and winter quarters in Africa. Two-thirds of the waterfowl that winter in the Middle East do so in the Hammar and Hawizah marshes. Large flocks that would normally stay in the marshes have been reported in Saudi Arabia. Thousands of fish have died as the waters recede. Research in the 1970s recorded 58 species in the marshland lakes and waterways.

Further evidence of the scale of the changes in the geography of the marshes has come from recently released video footage and infra-red photographs, taken by RAF Tornados monitoring the southern no-fly zone that has been in place since August 1992.

They show the exact layout of the engineering works, such as the two diversions of the Euphrates near Samawah and Nasiriyah, and the Mother of Battles project. The photographs prove the existence of a new lake, which has formed this year because of an overflow from the Samawah diversion. This was first reported in February by Iraqi opposition groups.

Although the report pours scorn on the Iraqi government's economic justification for the draining, it does not speculate about alternative reasons.

Most observers believe that the engineering works have become part and parcel of Saddam Hussein's campaign to crush Shia insurgents operating from the marshes. Draining the marshes has allowed the Iraqis to penetrate their hideouts and use heavy artillery.

Since the collapse of the 1991 Shia uprising, thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the region, or killed by the security forces. The Tornado images released by the Ministry of Defence back up these claims. They show large numbers of marshland villages on fire.

(Photograph and map omitted)