Paradise Regained?

A Plan to Restore Iraq's Wetland Graveyard

EA scientists will have to go to Iraq before knowing exactly how much water has been released in the last two to three months. Before the dam openings only about 30 percent of the entire marshland area could have been revived, says Curtis Richardson, a wetlands ecology professor at Duke University who is on EA's team and on the Everglades restoration project.

In order to come back entirely Alwash says the marshlands will require about 7 billion cubic meters of water annually. Most of Iraq's water comes from Syria and Turkey and they will partly determine how much water Iraq gets. The three countries still have to agree on how to divide the water, which, given Iraq's current situation, may take a while.

All these years, portions of the cracked marshlands resembled "a desert with two feet of salt where there used to be lakes," says Michelle Stevens, a restoration ecologist and EA's project manager. Too much salt is dangerous because freshwater stagnating over salty earth creates saltwater, which is deadly to many marshland plant and fish species.

Swift seasonal water flows are essential to flush the salt out and revive seed banks, fish species, and wildlife, says Dr. Rich Beilfuss of the International Crane Foundation, another panel member. The scientists can only wait and see whether the newly released waters will mimic such flows, but Derek Scott, an EA avian consultant and the last scientist to survey the marshes—in 1979—remarks, "My inclination would have been to . . . open up the floodgates and let nature take its course. There are wetlands in Iran that flood only once every 20 years, but when they do have water, they become a paradise for wildlife within months."

Eden Again proposes to launch the project with a detailed survey of the region, which could begin as early as November. It will involve testing for soil contaminants, establishing exactly how much water is there, and gauging how easily plants will return, according to the April 30 EA report, "Building a Scientific Basis for the Restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands."

Once the technical constraints of ecological restoration are resolved, of course, there is the monumental challenge of relocating perhaps thousands of Madan. It is unlikely that life in the marshlands will ever be as it was. The Madan now want amenities of the developed world like adequate sanitation, proper medical care, and schools, says Baroness Emma Nicholson, executive director of the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, a British humanitarian agency that has delivered relief services to Iraqi refugees in Iran and elsewhere for the last 12 years.

Unfortunately, many Madan also have blurry memories, if any, of marsh life because most of the remaining population is between 15 and 18 years old, says Peter Clark, AMAR Foundation's chief executive officer and co-editor with Nicholson of The Iraqi Marshlands: A Human and Environmental Study.

Of course for Ramadhan al Badri, there's no place like home. After fighting in the 1991 uprisings, the marsh dweller spent a year and a half in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, before immigrating to the United States, where he runs an auto transportation business. "[Marsh dwellers] will be happy to see the positive movement happening in the marshes," says Badri, who plans to be closely involved in the restoration effort and thinks "lots of willing" Madan families will quickly follow suit.

Eden Again is also stimulating public interest because the unique effort could set a precedent for the treatment of refugees worldwide. Nicholson says the concept of employing refugees to rebuild their own environment and homes could be replicated in other places like Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, where thousands of refugees cannot return home due to a lack of water from damming projects and drought.

Such optimism about returning refugees is contingent on a working infrastructure in Iraq. Stuart Leiderman, an environmentalist and a University of New Hampshire scholar, also believes Eden Again comes at a time when thousands of new refugees are emerging, reflecting a dire need for better repatriation efforts. One of the foremost proponents of the legal recognition of environmental refugees, Leiderman believes that globalization has dramatically spiked refugee numbers worldwide, not just through ethnic, cultural, and religious violence, but increasingly because of the environmental effects of war, environmentally harmful economic-development schemes, or severe natural disasters. In 1998, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said for the first time that more people were forced out of their homes by environmental disaster than by war. Currently, however, environmental refugees have no formal status under any international treaty.

Eden Again can demonstrate the necessity of restoring a place in order to restore its people—all the while allowing indigenous people oversight. "[The marshland project] will be the first time in modern history where a whole bioregional restoration effort incorporates the memories, desires, sweat, and toil of the refugees themselves in exchange for title to the communities and ecosystems they restore," says Leiderman.

Leiderman thinks the same kind of thing could start elsewhere if there were a new international convention that couples environmental refugees to ecological restoration projects worldwide. Such a convention would place emphasis on renewal efforts that would automatically generate income for returning refugees. Of course, in the current bureaucratic knot of international-convention policies, many see Leiderman's vision as hopelessly wishful, even though most experts agree that the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is badly outdated, too narrow to include thousands of the newly displaced.

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