Believed by many to be the garden planted by God in Genesis, Iraq’s marshes were home to a unique array of flora and fauna. Drained and cleared of indigenous people under Saddam Hussein, the wetlands became a wasteland. Now a group of Scots is helping bring the area back to life
LOOKING over the vast, dry wasteland, it is hard to imagine this area was once part of the lush, fertile, Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq. Believed to be the origins of the Garden of Eden as described in both the Koran and the Bible, the cradle of civilisation, this wetland area – originally the size of Lebanon and the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East – was home to thousands of Marsh Arabs and a diverse range of animals and birds. Yet after the 1991 Gulf War, the whole area was drained and the residents removed at gunpoint by Saddam Hussein.
As we travel onward, I begin to see small mounds, seashells littering the floor, pieces of clay pots, medicine bottles and lots of half-buried shoes. This is, in fact, a 20-year-old archaeological site, evidence of a once thriving village of small reed houses once inhabited by Marsh Arabs.
Remarkably, the only people living here now are the Bedouin who travel through these inhospitable places with their legions of camels. They too have been displaced, their original desert home now dotted with oil wells. It is hard not to see the irony as one minority replaces another – a type of evolution, you could say.
I have travelled to Iraq with Tony Miller, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants at Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden. He is working with Nature Iraq, the country’s first NGO, in the northern, mountainous part of country, as part of the Darwin Project, funded by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). This area, in common with the marshes, is waiting for the government rubber stamp to confirm national park status. Miller hopes his extensive experience of working with community engagement in conservation projects, promotion of eco tourism and training of botanists in northern Iraq can be used to help Nature Iraq and its work in the marshes. He wants to eventually undertake a full survey of the plants found here then produce a guide that can be used for managing the area, to train botanists and eventually for eco tourism.
Miller is representing the team behind Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s flagship exhibition of 2012, Paradise Restored – plants, people and projects in south-west Asia. It will include projects from across the area but has a number of Iraq examples, including a specific section about the marshes. The Botanics also aims to demonstrate the Marsh Arab tradition of weaving with reeds. To do this, it needs to raise the money to bring over a traditional reed boat as well as a weaver from the marshes who will use Scottish reeds to construct something in Scotland at RBGE.
Our guide through the Garden of Eden restoration project is Jassim Al Asadi, director of Nature Iraq. He himself is a Marsh Arab, removed from the wetlands with his family at the age of 32 and later imprisoned and tortured by the Ba’athist secret police. He looks across the mass of burnt reed stumps, which were once six metres high, and tells me that it still makes him sad after all these years. “It was such a beautiful place,” he says, shaking his head.
Yet, not far from such desolation lies what is hopefully the beginning of an ecological miracle. The restoration of the marshes, started in 2003 with the demolition of the dykes that held back the water of the Tigris and the Euphrates, means that the reeds are once again growing, their roots lying deep in the dry earth, waiting for the water to return.
Of the three marshes, Al-Hawizeh, Central and Hammar, only Al-Hawizeh survived, due to a river flowing into it from Iran. By 1993, however, it stood at just ten per cent of its original size. Interestingly, since the US invasion, the Iranian government has built a dam stopping this water from flowing into the marsh – a reminder of how politics and water go side by side in the Middle East. Now half of the whole area has been re-flooded and around 10,000 Marsh Arabs have returned to fish, breed buffalo and harvest the reeds.
Yet this remarkable recovery has been hindered by a major drought in 2008 and extensive dam-building. Within Iraq there is also a massive water shortage, and we see for ourselves on our visit to the Al-Hawizeh marsh the effects the dams – being built to take water for agriculture – are having. Water levels are worryingly low; mud flats are exposed, dried reed beds visible and algae thick on the water surface. Our Nature Iraq guide, botanist Nabeel Abdulhasan, is shocked at the change since his last visit, in 2010. “By the summer,” he says, “all the fish will be dead and the only place in Iraq where you can find water lilies could be gone.”
Richard Porter, of Bird Life International, a colleague of Miller’s and someone who has been involved with the restoration of the marshes, is upbeat about its recovery. “One of the most important discoveries is that, even with large-scale draining of the marshes, no breeding bird species has become extinct.”
He cites the marshes as especially important to ten globally endangered species, including the Basra reed warbler, of which there are now 3,000 pairs, the area being their only breeding place in the world. To ensure an income from tourism, one of the area’s greatest assets is undoubtedly its bird life, once described by travel writer Gavin Young as “the marshes’ crowning beauty”.
In recent years, with financial help from the Italian government, Nature Iraq has built regulators and mini dams along the marshes to help ensure a sustainable water supply from the Euphrates in the future. Yet, for political, economic and environmental reasons, as 2008 highlighted, the supply of water from the rivers to the marshes is not guaranteed. Miller explains, “The problems of water supply are outside the control of the marshes – the Euphrates and Tigris being dammed upstream in Turkey and Syria and irrigation for agriculture taking water away.”
This refers to the highly controversial Ilisu dam being built in Turkey and whose effects could be devastating to the marshes. Nature Iraq is trying to promote a more sustainable use of water, using a drip system to feed agriculture rather than the ancient but highly wasteful method of flooding and then draining whole areas.
The organisation is also looking to build proper communication channels with the returning Marsh Arabs to ensure good environmental practices are used. For example, there is a four-month moratorium on fishing to allow fish to breed and lay eggs, something strictly enforced under Saddam Hussein. This is now widely ignored, as is the hunting ban, with reports coming into the Nature Iraq offices of two otters and two wildcats being captured and killed by hunters in the week of my visit. Also, electricity is used in fishing – again, highly unsustainable.
Yet as I sit in a boat on the glistening blue water, listening to frogs, watching the birds and hearing the singing of the Marsh Arabs as they harvest the reeds, it is hard not to be impressed. Despite the catalogue of problems the marshes face, the way in which people and nature can recover from such devastation and rebuild is remarkably robust.
• The Paradise Restored exhibition is at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, from 4 August to 4 November (www.rbge.org.uk)
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