Paradise Regained?

A Plan to Restore Iraq's Wetland Graveyard

Iraq's onetime Garden of Eden, a vast stretch of wetlands in southern Iraq known as the Mesopotamian marshlands, destroyed by the 1991 Gulf War and by Saddam Hussein himself in the 1990s, was the grim setting last week for the discovery of more than 3,000 graves. The people who lived there were among Hussein's Shiite targets, and they have been excavating two sites in and near the marshes looking for relatives. The marshes themselves, which were their refuge, also became, in Hussein's hands, a major environmental disaster. Even in the last moment of his regime, Hussein tried to make deadly use of the wetlands by lifting dam gates to unleash trapped waters into the now parched acres. Presumably he hoped to slow down the invading American and British troops.

Scientists remain unsure how the flow of water will affect the ecology of the decimated area, but most agree that nature is the best medicine and the first fresh water into the marshlands in years may be a lucky break for renewal in what has become a graveyard in more than one way. Hussein's weapon may also be fortuitous for a Mesopotamian wetlands reclamation plan on a scale comparable to the restoration of Florida's Everglades. The project in Iraq, however, could cost about 10 times as much as the Everglades work, because the vision for restoration includes a revolutionary plan to restore to their original homes the indigenous marsh dwellers—now embattled environmental refugees.

Scholars believe the Mesopotamian Marshlands were the site of the biblical Eden, located within the "Land of the Two Rivers" between the Tigris and Euphrates. The largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East—20,000 square kilometers of once lush plant life—is a maze of interconnected lakes, mudflats, and wetlands. For over 5,000 years, the marshes sustained the Madan or marsh dwellers—an indigenous community, now also Shiite Muslims. They lived deep in the marshes, and moved around by boat, peacefully tending water buffalo, harvesting massive reed beds, and spearfishing in long, winding waterways. Using reeds, the Madan made elaborate dwellings that sat on woven mats suspended above the water.

In the 1950s, when Syria and Turkey built dams diverting the river waters upstream, the marshlands began to decline. Then, soon after the failed Shiite uprising of the last Gulf War, the Iraqi regime willfully destroyed this vital paradise. In the early 1990s, Hussein drained and dammed the marshlands under the official pretext of agricultural enhancement. Analysts worldwide, however, believe Hussein planned wholesale environmental destruction to exact revenge on rebel Shiite groups taking refuge in the marshes. The Iraqi government burned and shelled marsh villages and forcibly deported or killed hundreds of thousands of Madan.

Almost 13 years later, the marshes still lie in ruins after what the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) calls one of the "worst environmental disasters of this century." About 93 percent of the swampy oasis is parched and contaminated, according to a 2001 UNEP report. Experts believe at least 300,000 marsh dwellers out of a population of about half a million were killed. At least 40,000 Madan currently remain in refugee camps in Iran, with others scattered throughout Britain and the U.S. The latest war in Iraq, however, has finally roused international interest in the plight of the wetlands and one man in particular is leading efforts to restore the region and bring its people home.

Iraqi exile Azzam Alwash spent his childhood canoeing through the marshlands with his father, a district engineer who settled water disputes and monitored hydrological works in southeastern Iraq. Alwash moved to the U.S. as a young engineer, and over the last 25 years often dreamed of taking his family kayaking in the marshes. In 1997, however, that dream was shattered when he saw desolate footage of the area and realized the extent of its destruction. Alwash resolved to do something, and along with his wife, geologist Suzie Alwash, founded Eden Again (EA) last year.

The project ambitiously aims not only to oversee total ecological restoration of the marshlands—an area comparable in size to the Everglades—but also to make possible the return of its people. Alwash says Eden Again is unique because it is committed to involving the marsh dwellers and local Iraqi engineers in the entire process. "We want to involve [the Madan] in all the work; this will provide them with a livelihood and will also give them a stake in things," says Alwash.

With a modest starting budget of $190,000 from the Iraq Foundation and the U.S. State Department Office for Northern Gulf Affairs, the Alwashes began by assembling an international panel of 18 prominent wetland specialists and restoration ecologists. After poring over remote sensing maps of the marshlands, the team confirmed at a press conference in April that an ecological makeover is indeed scientifically feasible.

The Iraqi regime dammed the Euphrates at Nasiriyah and built a network of levees and dikes in northern Iraq to divert water from the central marshes into a 30-mile-long canal, often called the "mother of all wars" canal. Water levels quickly fell in all three areas of the wetlands: the Hammar marshes to the south; the central or Qurna marshes, where the Euphrates and Tigris meet; and the Huwaiza marshes, which are to the northeast, bordering Iran. Because the Huwaiza marshes get some Iranian water they are the least degraded of the three, but experts believe the other two could disappear by 2020.

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