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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 June 2006, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
Iraq's uncertain marshland revival
By Andrew North
BBC News, Hammar Marshes, southern Iraq

Marsh Arab reed house
Marsh Arabs lead hard poor lives despite the end of Saddam's rule
The Iraqi government says it has successfully restored large parts of the country's unique marshlands over the past three years.

Large areas were drained in the 1990s under the orders of Saddam Hussein - turning some sections to near desert.

Thousands of the region's Marsh Arabs - who can trace their ancestry back thousands of years - fled to neighbouring Iran.

But after the invasion, the Iraqi authorities began to tear down the dams that had diverted the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and the marshes have begun to revive.

Many of the Marsh Arabs have also returned - although to a life that is incredibly hard. Even basic services are still lacking in what is one of the poorest parts of the country.

The government says it plans to help them, but there are still questions over the long-term plans for the region.

Crackdown

The draining of the marshes went hand in hand with a crackdown Saddam Hussein ordered in the region - to punish its mainly Shia population for rebelling against him in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War

"That was a crime, a crime against the environment, against the people in the area, against our history", says Abdul Latif Rashid, Iraq's minister for water resources.

How Iraq's marshland has re-flooded since 2003

But speaking to the BBC, he said the authorities had been successful in repairing some of the damage.

"Probably 60% of the area has been restored," He claimed.

He will not make a prediction as to how much more areas will be re-flooded.

However one issue is that people in some parts of the marshland do not want the waters back. They are now using the drained land for farming.

Expanses of water

Before 1991, the marshes covered more than 20,000 sq km (8,000 square miles).

It is the largest wetland area in the Middle East and regarded as an ecological site of international importance.

Kamel Mezher
Our life here in the village is very hard. There is no power and we have no schools... it is still the same as it was under the old regime
Kamel Mezher, marsh farmer

The BBC was flown over one of the marsh areas west of the city of Basra in a British helicopter.

We had no way of comparing with the situation before. But from the aircraft, we could see large expanses of water.

There were fisherman easing their narrow boats along reedbeds.

In places, we saw traditional marsh Arab villages, floating on thick mats of reeds, water buffalo wallowing alongside.

Explorers such as the late Wilfred Thesiger, who lived with the Marsh Arabs in the 1950s described and photographed the same scenes.

The way of life here goes back thousands of years.

But the reality for the Marsh Arabs of today is not quite as romantic. Although the water is coming back, they have little else.

No change

We travelled to a dust-blown village called al-Houta on the edge of one of the lakes in the Hammar marshes.

Kamel Mezher - a farmer - described his daily life.

Iraq marshes
Iraq's marshlands are the biggest wetlands in the Middle East

"First I do my dawn prayers. Then I'm out in my boat to gather grass for my animals before it gets really hot."

Temperatures hover around 50C most days and will get hotter still in the next few months.

"Our life here in the village is very hard," he continues. "There is no power and we have no schools."

Although people in the village are happy Saddam Hussein has gone, life "is still the same as it was under the old regime".

And even though there is more water now, it is not safe to drink. Finding clean supplies is a constant problem.

Tribal disputes

The remote marshes have largely escaped the worst of the violence afflicting other parts of Iraq. But tribal disputes still cause bloodshed and insecurity here.

The people of al-Houta - who are from the Shaghamba tribe - have been locked in a dispute with members of the nearby Garamsha tribe for more than a decade.

Marshland buffalo
Buffalo have traditionally been key to the livelihood of marsh Arabs

"We can't leave the village and go to Basra," says Kamel Mezher. "It's not safe because of the Garamsha."

"If I could afford to leave I would."

The government says it has now allocated millions of dollars for the marsh region - aimed at giving people "better services, education, health care and communications", says Mr Rashid, the minister.

But Kamel Mezher and other villagers say they have seen none of these funds.

Part of the problem is that the government has more pressing problems to deal with - because of the continuing violence.

But there are complaints that some of the money set aside for marshland development has been misused.

There are other question marks over the government's plans for the region.

Mr Rashid says some areas could be declared as a national park, to protect the unique wildlife.

But it is not clear how large an area this would cover.

He also talks of plans to allow small scale industry in some areas, to provide jobs. He denies there would be a conflict between "environment and development".

Another future issue to be resolved is whether or not to exploit what some believe are large reserves of oil beneath the swamps and lakes.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
See people living in the marsh village



SEE ALSO
Promising signs for Iraq marshes
21 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature
UN plan to save Iraq's marshlands
23 Jul 04 |  Middle East
Southern Iraq diary: Marshlands
16 Mar 04 |  Middle East
New hope for Iraq's Marsh Arabs
05 Nov 03 |  Middle East

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