Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

California Couple Launch Effort to Resurrect Iraq's Dessicated Marshlands

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

California Couple Launch Effort to Resurrect Iraq's Dessicated Marshlands

Article excerpt

For 7,000 years, the moist, fertile inland delta where the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers converge in what is now called southern Iraq has supported a unique ecosystem and culture. The abundance of fish, wildlife, birds and soil conducive to growing barley and wheat gave rise to the first city states of the Sumerians. In fact, some archeologists believe this was the Eden alluded to in the Old Testament and earlier texts of the ancient Near East.

Historically, the dense reed beds-which could be penetrated only by small boats-created a haven for Chaldeans, who defeated the Assyrian ruler Sargon in the 7th century B.C.E. During the Abbasid period, the Zanj, a rebellious slave army, took refuge in the vast marshland which far exceeded the expanse of the Florida Everglades. Not even the Ottoman Turks succeeded in incorporating into their empire the independent Ma'dan people, who had inhabited the vast wetlands since prehistory.

But, in one of the greatest ecological crimes of the 20th century, Saddam Hussain managed to drain, poison and desiccate the lush wetlands that were home to 250,000 Ma'danis, as well as a crucial stopover for birds migrating from Europe to Africa. This marshland also served as a kidney to the entire Persian/Arabian Gulf by filtering out toxins while contributing organic matter to fishes breeding in the region.

Frustrated by the Shi'i opposition, which eluded his army by retreating into the marshlands, Saddam launched a punitive assault in 1991 that brought desertification to one of the world's most valuable delta regions. Working his engineers 24 hours a day for nine months, the dictator built the Saddam River, a canal that diverted agricultural drainage water that once flowed into the Gulf's al-Hammar marsh. This was followed in 1994 by the Mother of Battles River that channeled fresh water from the Euphrates into a salt water marsh. On the central marshes, drainage canals were constructed under the names of the Prosperity River and, to drain the Hawizeh Marsh, the Crown of Battles River. In 1997, the final blow was the Fidelity to the Leader Canal, which also diverted water from the al-Hammar.

Whatever water remained after this nonstop erection of locks, dikes, earth embankments and massive canals-one alone was four-miles wide-was poisoned. Amateur videotapes by Iraqi refugees verify the use of toxins to kill fish and water buffalo.

Not only were a quarter of a million Ma'dan people killed or scattered, but many bird and animal species unique to the Mesopotamian marshlands may have been eliminated from large portions of their range; these include the smooth-coated otter, Jungle cat, Mesopotamian deer and honey badger.

According to biologist Dr. Michelle Stevens, "We do not know that any species are extinct, because many have found refuge in the Hawizeh marsh on the Iran-Iraq border. The Mesopotamian marshlands provide habitat for a number of globally threatened species, including 14 species of bird, three species of mammal and one species of dragonfly. Given the habitat loss, several rare or endemic species must now be classified as globally threatened."

Satellite photos provide the only testimony to this ecocide. Saddam justified his colossal drainage project as a means of clearing land for wheat production and opening oil exploration to the Russians and French.

Commented Dr. Hassan Partow of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP): "It is absolutely phenomenal to see the destruction of an ecosystem of that scale in just five to six years."

Now, riding to the rescue are two California-based specialists, Drs. Azzam and Suzie Alwash. The two met at USC, where both were graduate students on scholarships: he in engineering, she in geology.

Azzam was born in Iraq, where his father, Jawad, was the country's preeminent irrigation engineer. As a young boy, Azzam rode with his father in motorized boats while his father inspected water levels and irrigation systems. …

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