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Restoration of Iraq Marshes Could Take Decades

Coalition Provisional Authority officials in Iraq have begun the enormous task of trying to rehabilitate the southern marshlands, deliberately destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Correspondent Alisha Ryu visited one of Iraq's most devastated areas, and reports restoration efforts could last decades.

Thirty-year-old Kassem Chaab Fayad says he remembers a time when he could not go anywhere in his village, without getting into a canoe and paddling through thick reeds that grew as tall as three meters.

Mr. Fayad says he saw first-hand all of the wonderful things that nature provided for the people here: rare birds, fish, and plants that once made this region of Iraq self-sufficient and prosperous.

Until the late 1970s, water was still abundant in the Owda marshlands near the city of Amara, about 400 kilometers south of Baghdad. The marshlands lie close to the western banks of the Tigris River, which fed the area with water for thousands of years.

The 4,000 hectare marshland forms only a small part of the southern marshes. According to a 1973 survey, lush wetlands covered nearly 20,000 square kilometers near the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

The wetlands were the largest in the Middle East, supplying two thirds of the fish sold in Iraqi markets. The marshes were also home to millions of migrating birds and rare animals, such as the striped hyena and the gray wolf. Some biblical scholars say the marshes were the inspiration for the depiction of the Garden of Eden.

But when Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq in 1978, he saw nothing but a rising political threat from the Shiite Muslims who inhabited the marshlands.

He ordered engineers to build an elaborate system of dams and canals to divert water away from the marshlands. Once the marshes were drained, Saddam built a network of roads to allow tanks and armored vehicles to patrol the area and crush any resistance.

An advisor to the Iraqi minister of water resources and the head of the newly-created Center for Marshes Restoration, Hassan Janabi, says Saddam destroyed the central wetlands near the towns of Amara and neighboring Nasariyah, simply by digging up another river.

"It runs two kilometers wide that intercepts all the waters that feeds into the central marsh, and redirects them away from the central marsh to the Gulf," he said.

Many parts of the Owda marshlands are now bone-dry. The local canals contain only enough water for the villagers in the area to drink and to irrigate small plots of wheat and barley. Farming, villagers say, is the only way they can survive.

Thirty-two-year-old farmer, Sabah Abdul Hussein, says since the fall of Saddam's regime in April, he has been waiting for a tidal wave that would fill the land again with water.

Mr. Hussein says he was a fisherman before the marshes were drained. He still keeps a canoe in the back of the one-room, mud-brick hut he shares with his wife and six children.

Mr. Hussein says, with the wetlands restored, he would not have to rely on the back-breaking work of a farmer, to eke out a living. He could fish again and raise cattle. He says he welcomes any improvement or change with open arms.

At the ministry of water resources in Baghdad, Mr. Janabi says international donors have begun to open their purses in support of the ministry's efforts to restore Iraq's marshlands. The United States and Italy, in particular, have already pledged several million dollars to fund various restoration projects.

By helping local people dismantle dykes and dams, the ministry has been able to re-flood about 10 percent of the marshlands near Nasiriyah in the past five months. But the task ahead is enormous.

Mr. Janabi says as much as 20 billion cubic meters of water, or about one third of the annual flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers put together, would be needed to restore the marshlands to their original state.

Since more than 90 percent of the water in Iraq is already being used for agriculture, Mr. Janabi says he believes it could take years, if not decades, to find enough water to fill up the wetlands.

"We are apprehensive about the perception of the population that this thing is going to happen so fast, and everything is going to be back like in the '70s, and things like that," said Hassan Janabi. "So, wherever I go and meet people, I sort of try to lower their expectations. There are a lot of factors contributing to this. We need to negotiate with the Syrians and the Turks, so that Iraqi share of the Euphrates and the Tigris are preserved. And they also need to know that whatever water we have is not only for the marsh. The economy needs water - agriculture, industry, drinking water. We have priorities."

Fingering a broken, dried-up reed from the marsh bed at Owda, Kassem Chaab Fayad says the people here have only two choices, to flee to the cities and take their chances in an unfamiliar, unforgiving environment, or to stay and hope the floodgates will open soon.