Magazine article The Middle East

A Return to the Marshes? the Wetlands of Iraq and the Marsh Arabs That Lived There Were a Source of Fascination and Inspiration for Centuries until, in an Act of Barbarism, Former President Saddam Hussein Ordered That They Should Be Drained. Now, an Exciting New Plan Aims to Reclaim Areas of the Devastated Wetlands and Attempt to Return Them to Their Former Glory

Magazine article The Middle East

A Return to the Marshes? the Wetlands of Iraq and the Marsh Arabs That Lived There Were a Source of Fascination and Inspiration for Centuries until, in an Act of Barbarism, Former President Saddam Hussein Ordered That They Should Be Drained. Now, an Exciting New Plan Aims to Reclaim Areas of the Devastated Wetlands and Attempt to Return Them to Their Former Glory

Article excerpt

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TWO UNITED NATIONS organisations have announced a plan to designate the Fertile Crescent of Iraq a World Heritage Site. It is the largest wetland in the Middle East and reputedly the cradle of the first Mesopotamian civilisations.

Scholars identify the region on the basis of nearby archaeological treasures as the location of the biblical Garden of Eden and the Great Flood as well as the birthplace of Abraham, or Ibrahim. The plan would bring sustainable livelihoods to the Marsh Arabs (the ma'dan) by restoring the ecological viability of their lands.

The people of the marshes are heirs of the Babylonians and the Sumerians who originally invented writing. They have lived in the area for 5,000 years, jealously preserving a separate and unique culture suited to their marsh environment. The remaining inhabitants still navigate reed canoes and live by hunting, fishing, small-scale farming and tending water buffalo.

Up to 300,000 Marsh Arabs were forced into refugee camps in and outside Iraq as the wetlands were destroyed under the direction of the late President Saddam Hussein. Only a few thousand remained in their wretched, besieged villages by the time the despotic former leader was forced to flee his palace in Baghdad.

Narmin Othman, the Iraqi environment minister, has expressed delight at the prospect of the marshlands becoming a World Heritage Site. Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and under-secretary general of the UN, believes the project is of huge universal importance and may teach humanity how to value and restore "other damaged, degraded and economically useful wetland ecosystems around the world."

The fragile wetland ecosystem of the Crescent was systematically degraded in a sustained and relentless campaign by Saddam that began back in the 1990s. It was mounted in retribution for the alleged loyalty of the predominantly Shi'a Marsh Arabs to Iran in its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, and as a punishment for a suppressed Shi'a rebellion.

The marshes had been a traditional hiding place for centuries of people facing persecution. In his murderous campaign against the Marsh Arabs, Saddam is reported to have bombed and burnt the villages and poisoned the water. The drainage programme he instituted to deprive the marshes of water and their people of a livelihood has turned vast areas of the wetlands into salty deserts.

When Saddam fell in 2003, the remaining residents of the region wrecked the dams and opened the floodgates put in place by his regime. Re-flooding has already restored the dying ecology of perhaps 60% of the marshes. But there are grave doubts about the future of the rest. Expert sources say that about half the world's wetlands have been irrevocably lost during the past century.

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Nick Nuttall, chief spokesperson and head of media relations for UNEP, announced the World Heritage management support plan for the marshes following a landmark conference in Kyoto, Japan. The plan crowns the success of an initial four-year $14m UNEP rescue programme. International assistance so far has embraced such essential, rudimentary components as the provision of solar power and safe drinking water for the surviving and slowly returning indigenous communities as well as reed-bed management for pollution filtering.

The cost of the original marshland restoration project that commenced in 2004 has been met by Italy, Japan and the UN Iraq Trust Fund. That scheme will now be widened to include specialist assistance from the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and as yet unspecified financial funding raised by Italy.

UNESCO will contribute the outline of a comprehensive, environmentally sustainable management plan and launch pilot projects focused on community-wide cultural preservation and capacity building. …

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