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Page last updated at 09:35 GMT, Tuesday, 18 January 2011
Restoring Iraq's wetland marshes to the original Eden

By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

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Thousands of rare marbled teal return to the wetlands, ornithologists discover

It is thought to be the original Garden of Eden.

A place so beautiful, teeming with water and life, that according to the Christian faith it was the birthplace of mankind.

That was until the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein drained these great wetlands of southern Iraq, destroying them, turning them to desert.

However, since his overthrow, a remarkable effort has begun to restore these Mesopotamian Marshes, among the most important wetland habitat in the world.

One man is leading the way, attempting to rejuvenate the marshes and bring back the diversity of animals and plants that once lived there.

A BBC film crew has followed his progress, revealing how he and his colleagues are succeeding in attracting rare birds back to a land ravaged by persecution and war.

Marsh Arab fisherman
An ancient way of life for the Marsh Arabs

In the 1990s Saddam Hussein drained the wetlands to punish the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes, who had risen against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

He built a network of canals to channel water from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers around the marshes, dumping it straight into the Gulf.

Within a matter of months, the marshes, which had covered 15,000 sq km, were reduced to less than 10% of their original size.

The effects were devastating.

The marshes, which are believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden, had been of crucial importance to wildlife in the region.

Dragonfly in Iraqi marshes
Life is returning

Surrounded by deserts they were a source of fresh water, sustaining a wide biodiversity of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

They were vital for migrating birds, providing a much-needed watering hole for birds making the long journey between Eurasia and Africa.

With the marshes virtually destroyed the wildlife populations collapsed.

Restoring reeds

But since the fall of Saddam there has been a concerted effort to restore the marshes and re-establish both the wildlife and the Marsh Arab way of life.

At the heart of this work is Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi, who himself fled Saddam's regime.

He grew up in Nasiriyah and used to accompany his father, a government water engineer, on trips into the marshes.

After the 2003 invasion, Azzam returned to Iraq to help restore the marshes. To that end he established Nature Iraq, an organisation dedicated to the protection and restoration of Iraq's natural heritage.

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Why save Eden?

Film-makers David Johnson and Stephen Foote went to Iraq to meet Azzam, who has returned to find out whether the marshes can be restored and whether the wildlife and Marsh Arabs have returned.

Their journey was arduous; they had to be protected wherever they went by armed private security personnel and take measures to avoid threats including roadside bombs.

When they did get out into the marshes they discovered a very different Iraq from the one that fills news reports. Large sections of the marshes have been restored and the reed beds stretch as far as the eye can see.

Dried marshbed
Damage done

But the situation is far from an unparalleled success. The restoration is patchy, and remains a far cry from the marshes in their pomp.

Upstream dams have disrupted the traditional water cycle of the marshes. The spring floods that used to flush out accumulated salt deposits and replenish the marshes with fresh minerals no longer occur. As a result the marshes are becoming more saline, affecting the ecology of the area.

The dams have also reduced the total volume of water reaching the marshes in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Combined with a prolonged regional drought the area is suffering from a second drying.

At its peak in 2007 over 50% of the marshes had been restored, but now the proportion of restored marshland has dropped to nearer 30%.

As a result, the wildlife resurgence is under threat and the Marsh Arabs who have returned face the prospect of having to leave again, because they cannot rely on the marshes to supply either food or a livelihood.

Marsh Arab fisherman
Life in the marshes is based on water buffalo and sustainable hunting

Azzam and Nature Iraq are masterminding steps to address this second drying.

A large embankment across the Euphrates is being built to help artificially raise the level of the river, designed to rehydrate a large area of the Central Marshes.

This is just a stop-gap measure while work progresses on a long-term solution that will shut down one of Saddam's drainage canals, redistributing water using a network of regulators to ensure a ready supply of water to the Central Marshes.

The team is already having some stunning successes.

This year, with the help of ornithologists from BirdLife International, they counted a single flock of rare marbled teal on the lakes, numbering at least 40,000 birds.

Marbled teal only live in the region, and across the border in countries such as Turkey.

The drying of the wetlands caused its numbers to fall so significantly that it is now considered Endangered.

Map of marshes in Iraq
Green marshes dominate a map of southern Iraq

The film-makers also sighted another rare bird, a Basra reed warbler, which is thought to be bellwether for the health of the marshes.

It takes its name from the nearby city of Basra and is rarely seen outside of the region, except during migration to East Africa.

With the draining of the marshes, its breeding was virtually destroyed, but anecdotal reports suggest it too is making a comeback.

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, it was too dangerous to visit the marshes to conduct bird surveys.

That has now changed and ornithologists are visiting this unique habitat, establishing how best to protect the bird species there.

Other birds filmed colonising the marshes are black-winged stilts, great white pelicans, imperial eagles, slender-billed gulls, greater flamingos, squaco herons and red-crested pochard.

The challenge now is to keep the water flowing into the marshes, allowing Eden to flourish once more.

Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq will broadcast on BBC Two on Tuesday, 18 January at 2000 GMT.

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