Restoring Iraq’s Eden

Anyone who watched the 2003 television coverage of coalition troops hurtling across barren desert wastelands through raging dust storms saw the legendary marshes of Iraq—at least what was left of them.

The dry, cracked, seemingly endless stretches of desert that the tanks and jeeps rolled across are the consequences of a severe human-engineered disaster. And it has yet to be seen if any amount of effort or money will be able to reverse the ecological destruction brought on by the regime of Saddam Hussein, whose other major crime against nature was setting Kuwaiti oil fields alight after the first Gulf War.

Azzam Alwash was born and raised on the edge of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, a lush ecosystem that once covered nearly 8,000 square miles. Some scholars believe it to be the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden. "During the 1990s, stories began to drift around about the draining of the marshlands, but we could not comprehend that such a vast area could be dried," says Alwash, who now lives in the U.S. and has testified to a Congressional subcommittee on the issue.

To quell a tribal rebellion of the Ma"dan marsh people following the first Gulf War, damming and drainage by Hussein’s regime resulted in the desertification of more than 7,000 square miles—an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 90 percent of the once-fertile marshes were affected. Hundreds of thousands of the Ma"dan have been displaced.

"We have already lost half of the world’s wetlands in the last 100 years, and the continued desiccation of the Mesopotamian marshlands confirms that more decisive and concrete action is needed," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP.

Some of that work is now underway. Alwash and his geologist wife, Suzie, are on the front lines of restoration efforts. In 2001 they helped found the Eden Again Project through the nonprofit Iraq Foundation, established by Iraqi expatriates in 1991. Partially funded by the U.S. State Department, the project is conducting research to restore water flow to the marshes, and is helping prioritize areas for restoration. In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given assistance to Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources, which has declared marsh restoration its number one priority.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided funding for a restoration plan, but not actual restoration, says Curtis Richardson, a Duke University ecology professor and scientific advisor to the project.Marsh dwellers, acting on their own initiative, have begun breaking down the dams and embankments that were holding back the waters. Suzie Alwash estimates that as much as 30 percent of the marshlands have been re-flooded, and life is beginning to return.

But many former marsh dwellers have not returned, and much of the former Eden still remains a dustbowl. "The dominant challenge is the amount of water available," says Suzie Alwash. And water flow depends on international cooperation, because dams in Turkey and elsewhere greatly restrict its availability. Such cooperation, meanwhile, waits on an established government in war-torn Iraq.