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.

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.

Stephen Castles, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, also believes that a new kind of protection system is urgently required for the millions displaced by development projects and environmental degradation but feels that it's a better idea to identify such people as "forced migrants." "It would be wrong to change the 1951 convention definition," he says, "because in the current political climate, any change is likely to be a watering down. Rather, we need specific protection and assistance conventions and institutions to meet the needs of the other types of forced migrants."


But even as Eden Again hopes to break new ground both in scale and concept, funding for the project is still uncertain. Project members are hesitant to put a price tag on achieving total restoration and repatriation, but Leiderman estimates that it will cost about 10 times the $7.8 billion tab on the Everglades project. This kind of money will probably have to come from the UN, the United States, and other countries, and at least for the moment, they are beginning to pay attention. In fact, "countries are fighting to be involved," says Suzie Alwash.

"We may find the needs exceed the funds but we'll only know that when we do a thorough environmental-impact assessment, which we couldn't do before,"says Greg Sullivan, deputy press director for the State Department Office of Northern Gulf Affairs.

This week the UNEP is hosting the Mesopotamian Marshland Forum, an international meeting in Geneva focusing on restoration of the Iraqi wetlands. Conservation and relief organizations will attend as well as the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and others. The concern now, says Suzie Alwash, is that USAID, which is putting forth billions of dollars for education, health care, and wastewater treatment in post-war Iraq, will try to bully other governments and organizations out of restoration plans.

Eden Again project members plan to go to Iraq in June. "There is a great deal of public interest, and all of the federal agencies want a piece of the restoration pie," says project manager Michelle Stevens. "Inshallah, God willing, it will work out for the benefit of the marsh dwellers and the marshes themselves."

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