BAGHDAD – The Bible suggests that the Iraqi marshlands were once the Garden of Eden. But the garden, if it ever existed, is long gone, and so, mostly, are the marshlands.
These marshlands once spread over 20,000 sq. km (7,722 sq. mi.) in the south of Iraq. They formed around the basin where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet before flowing into the Persian Gulf.
Today, more than 70 percent of the marshlands are dry, and less than 10 percent of the former million or so inhabitants remain. People here lived off fishing, grew rice, and made goods from reeds. Much of this source of livelihood is gone.
The blame falls usually on Saddam Hussein for building dams to divert water from the rivers to other areas through the 1990s. He is reported to have done this to punish the native Shias seen as opposing him after the first Gulf War of 1991.
"Saddam killed the marshlands and destroyed a whole way of life," says Ismail Zayer, who still lives there. As water supplies choked, inhabitants took refuge in Iran or fled to other parts of the country. The refugees included many Shias who had escaped to the marshlands to flee the Saddam crackdown that followed their uprising.
But not all of the blame can fall on Saddam Hussein. His predecessors had developed plans since the 1950s to build dams to divert water from the marshlands. Many argue this was inevitable; others say that diversion of water has not delivered agricultural production where it was intended to.
Some of the dams built by Saddam to divert water are still in place, while some others have been closed down.
Zayer’s family sees a glimmer of hope now. They are working toward rebuilding the marshlands. "It will take time. It will take efforts. But it will be done," he says.
Some ways in which this is being done are not necessarily the best. Inhabitants have broken down dams and barriers at many places to let water into the marshlands again. About a fifth of the marshlands area has been re-flooded this way, but the water is mostly contaminated, local reports say.
Several international organizations such as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) are looking to restore areas of the marshlands with the support of donor countries such as Japan, Italy and Canada. But they caution against any idea of fully restoring the marshlands.
"For the time being, we are not rebuilding the marshlands," Monique Barbut from UNEP told IPS on phone from Paris. "That is a long-term project that involves a decision by the Iraqi government, involving many ministries on many important and costly decisions."
A decision on the marshlands will depend on how a future Iraq government will distribute the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, on the setting up of water treatment plants, and on the emphasis it places on agricultural output that could necessitate diversion of river waters.
"The government has created an inter-agency committee, but it is way too early for them to make any decisions," Barbut said.
Some of the early steps toward restoring the marshlands include provision of clean water and sanitation projects. With no fresh water coming in, salinity has increased and the waters have become polluted with waste. Japan has provided $11 million for a UNEP restoration project to provide clean water and to restore habitat that would purify water naturally.
Once these issues are addressed, the government will have to decide how it could feed water again into dried-up areas. The marshlands have traditionally been flooded between February and April with fresh water from the rivers to wash out the brackish water that accumulates the rest of the year. The rivers were properly treated, and water was let in through the dams.
Unless such water distribution is restored, the only alternative would be to bring in water through the Persian Gulf, which would be expensive to treat and supply.
"Expensive or not, we have to find a solution if we are to think of the environmental impact of the marshlands," Husni Jassem Mohammed, former professor of environmental studies at Baghdad University, told IPS. "The marshlands are unique ecosystems. They provide for bird migration. They provide for fishery. The wetlands provide life for species that may be dying."
Restoration will be an important economic task besides an environmental issue, Barbut says. "The marshlands used to provide jobs and welfare for hundreds of thousands of people. If people can go back to their traditional ways, it means that much less problem for the government to deal with."
Of the three main marshland areas Hawizeh, Hammar and Central, the Central marshlands have suffered the most and are now almost totally dry. Only the northern part of Hawizeh marsh along the border with Iran retains its original form.