A Return to Eden; Can Science Save Iraq's Ancient Marshlands?

Article excerpt

Australian expertise is part of an international effort to assess and remediate the once magnificent Mesopotamian marshlands that were systematically devastated under Saddam Hussein's regime. Clare Peddie reports on the exciting findings of Dr Rob Fitzpatrick's soil science expedition to Iraq, and on the glimmers of hope emerging from one of the world's worst environmental tragedies.

When Dr Rob Fitzpatrick was called to go to Iraq last year, he was overjoyed. And yet for many Australians the very idea of going anywhere near the Middle East at present--let alone war-torn Iraq - would have been near abhorrent. Even Fitzpatrick's friends and colleagues were surprised by his unshakable enthusiasm for the expedition.

Fitzpatrick, however, was confident he would be safe--and anyway, he didn't want to miss this opportunity for the world. Very few scientists had set foot in Iraq's southern marshlands--believed to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden--in the years since the Iran-Iraq War. According to Fitzpatrick, 'You could say we know more about Mars than we know about the soils of the Iraq marshlands since they were drained and burned'.

In the war-affected years the landscape was intentionally transformed from paradise to desolate wasteland. The huge marshlands area now more closely resembles the surface of Mars than the beautiful 'riverine wilderness' described by Gavin Young in National Geographic, back in 1976.

It is almost impossible to comprehend how such a vast area, originally covering 20 000 square kilometres, could have been so efficiently destroyed. And yet the evidence is clear on the ground: it was the combined result of huge dams upstream and engineering works put in place by Saddam Hussein's regime. Expansive drainage canals and 'rivers' with overblown patriotic names like 'Mother of Battles River', 'Saddam River' (or the Main Outfall Drain) and 'Prosperity River' still drain water away from the marshes, straight out into the Persian Gulf.

'There are several reasons for draining soils', says Fitzpatrick, 'one of those reasons is to get rid of people?

An environmental disaster

The drainage network was first proposed in the 1950s to support irrigation in the north and to reclaim salt-affected agricultural lands. Progress, however, was slow.

Further plans to drain the marshlands were drafted in the 1970s and 1980s, but remained on the drawing board until after the first Gulf War. In the meantime, the marshlands were in the middle of a combat zone, and large areas dried out simply as a result of military activities.

While the Western world largely accepted the Iraq government's line about drainage to support agriculture, some suspected Saddam had more sinister motives. Details gleaned from interviews with refugees, and technical plans leaked to dissident groups, indicated that Saddam's engineers started work on a much larger scale around 1991. This was eventually confirmed by startling satellite images.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Division of Early Warning and Assessment published a selection of NASA's images in 2001. They showed that 90 per cent of the marshlands had already been lost and that the rest were in serious danger. Confirming suspicions, the authors stated that most of the damage was done between 1991 and 1995. They pronounced ecosystem collapse at the year 2000.

'The destruction of the vast Mesopotamian marshlands, a region of global importance for biodiversity and home of the Marsh Arabs, will go down in history along with other human-engineered changes such as the desiccation of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of Amazonia, as one of the Earth's major and most thoughtless environmental disasters.' (UNEP 2001. Partow, H. The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem).

The UNEP report included staggering facts and figures about the full extent of marshland drainage and its impacts. …