Restoring Iraqi Marshlands

June 1, 2003

The director of Duke's Wetland Center, Curtis Richardson, wants to visit Iraq this summer as part of an effort to restore some of the Mesopotamian marshlands, a crucial wildlife sanctuary and home to an ancient human culture that has been largely destroyed by upstream water removal and deliberate government depredations.

Map of Iraq

" This is the largest degradation of any wetlands in modern times in the world--an amazing tragedy that took place mostly in the last decade," says Richardson, a professor of resource ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

Richardson calls the marshlands "a treasure of unbelievable environmental proportions." Some scholars consider it the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. Richardson is a member of an international technical advisory panel that has estimated that more than 90 percent of the original 7,700-square-mile, reed-filled maze of shallow lakes and waterways has now been degraded to salt-encrusted pan.

The degradation began more than twenty years ago when upstream damming in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq began reducing water flows in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Then, in retaliation for local uprisings in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's regime organized a campaign to eliminate the 5,000-year-old Arab Marsh Dweller culture. Hussein's campaign included digging drainage channels such as the "Mother of Battles River," slaughtering inhabitants' water buffalo, and burning their homes. The Marsh Dwellers' homeland was also reportedly poisoned with herbicides; nearly 100,000 former residents now live in refugee camps outside Iraq.

Efforts to restore the marshlands, called the Eden Again Project, were organized before Hussein's ouster by Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi civil engineer, and his wife, Suzie, in California. Richardson says he was invited to become an Eden Again technical adviser because of the Duke Wetland Center's research and restoration projects in Florida's Everglades, now undergoing massive efforts to reduce pollution and improve water flow.

The Everglades restoration has some similarities to what is envisioned in Iraq, but the two projects are "vastly different," he says. "There were never 100,000 people living inside the Everglades. There are millions living outside, but not inside. And, of course, the Everglades are not fully drained and annually receive nearly fifty-five inches of rainfall, compared to four inches of rainfall in the marsh areas of southern Iraq."

The Mesopotamian marshlands were essentially a giant oasis within a hot, dry, desert climate, and the river water that fed them was always naturally high in salts, Richardson says. The water adequately diluted and flushed those salts as long as the marshlands were flooded and continually flowed to the Persian Gulf. But where the marshes have been drained, the salt accumulated and has risen through the dried soil to encrust and contaminate it.

" One of the great concerns is that a lot of these soils won't re-wet properly after having dried out and baked for eight or ten years in the hot sun," he says. "The real question for us starts with how much water can we put back in?"

With so much of the original water permanently diverted for irrigation and human use, technical advisers have already concluded that only a portion of the marshlands can ever be restored. Currently, only one section, the Haweizeh Marsh along the Iraq-Iran border, still has water. And it is the last remaining refuge for plant and animal species in the marsh. Other places for reflooding would first have to be purged of excess salts and toxic chemicals.

" We want to go into the areas first and do a soil and seed bank survey and determine which would be best for restoration," Richardson says. That's something he would like to do this summer, if both Iraqi and American participants, including the U.S. State Department, agree. "No one has been allowed to go into those areas for more than ten years. There are even concerns about huge numbers of mines on the Iraq-Iran border.

" Unfortunately, the pressures are already mounting for a large release of water into these areas, and the native Marsh Arabs want this done quickly so they can return to their lives. If this is done it could be an ecological disaster due to release of high salinity and toxins. Marsh restoration is not rocket science. It is far more difficult."