Iraq marshlands: tentative recovery

AP Aug. 24 reports that Iraq’s southern marshlands—drained by Saddam Hussein—are showing signs of rebirth; former residents are returning, and hunting and fishing are reviving. A new U.N. report sums up the progress, saying satellite imagery shows the marshes have regained 40 percent of their former reach. However, life in the wetlands remains hard—with much poverty, little clean water and rampant sewage problems, local residents complain. Violence has kept many international aid groups from working to help restore the area. “The life is still too hard to get back to our normal life of breeding cows and buffaloes, planting and fishing,” said Sabah Mushen Hussein, who left his home in the marshlands in 1993. He still works as a taxi driver in Basra to support his family.

Of the nearly 3,600 square miles of marshes in 1970, the area shrank by 90% to 300 square miles in 2002. The new satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover in just the past three years, with the marshes rebounding to about 37% of their 1970 reach, the UN Environmental Program found. Iraqi engineers and tribal members began re-flooding the wetlands by tearing down dikes after Saddam’s fall in 2003.

“There are signs of life returning to the marshlands,” said Abdullah Ramadan, a local official in Basra who works to revive them. But he said the region has a long way to go before it has really recovered. “The majority of the area in Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar (provinces) still suffers many difficulties,” he said, including lack of drinking water, sewage treatment and electricity. The area had electricity during Saddam’s era but now gets only about four hours a day.

About a third of the estimated 300,000 people who were forced to leave the region after the marshes were drained have now returned, said Iraq’s minister of water resources, Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid. But many have come back simply because the places they had lived since the 1990s in central and northern Iraq are now too violent. “Since these families are Shiites, they have been forced to get back their homes because of the anti-Shiites’ campaign in these areas,” he said.

“Full restoration, if you’re talking about the way they were in 1972, I think is impossible,” said Azzam Alwash, director of the NGO Eden Again, which is working to restore the marshes. “A lot of cities have been built in the lowlands that have been dried.”

Marsh residents live in shanties made of reeds and papyrus. Last year, the UN announced an $11 million project funded by Japan to help restore the marshes and provide clean drinking water and sanitation for 100,000 people living there.

“It will help Iraqis return to a traditional way of life,” Rashid said. “Even people in the capital, who have never seen the marshlands, are really proud of the project.”

See also our recent feature on Iraq’s marshlands.

See our last post on Iraq and the war of perceptions concerning the war.