A United Nations agency has some good news to report out of Iraq: the country's devastated marshland, all but destroyed by the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, is reviving strongly. At a conference in Japan, the U.N. Environment Program appealed for more aid for the unique ecological system.
New satellite imagery shows that about 40 percent of the marshland of southern Iraq, the largest wetland ecosystem on the Eurasian continent and the region some people believe was the original Garden of Eden, has recovered.
The technology division director of the U.N. Environment Program, , says the ecosystem had shrunk to just 760 square kilometers by 2002, after it was drained by then-President Saddam Hussein in the 1990s to punish the so-called "Marsh Arabs" of the region.
But satellite data from this month shows that thanks partly to a Japan-funded restoration project, the marshland now covers nearly 3,500 square kilometers.
"This indicates a phenomenal rate of recovery of the marshland, which is a key natural habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries," she said.
Saddam Hussein, after the first Gulf War, accused the Marsh Arabs of siding with a Shi'ite uprising, and he built a network of dams and canals to keep water from the wetland. That turned the region into a semi-desert, forcing most occupants of the 5,000-year-old aquatic culture, who lived on small wooden boats, to flee.
Hassan Janabi, advisor to the Iraqi Minister of Water Resources, says many of the same bureaucrats who nearly destroyed the area are now helping revive it.
"The ministry considers this as priority number one," he said. "This is a real achievement, knowing the politics of Iraq in the past and the engagement of the ministry itself in the draining policies of the marshes."
Japan provided an initial $11 million for the project. Most of the restoration work is being done by Iraqis, who have undergone specialized training in Japan and other foreign countries.
U.N. officials acknowledge the difficulties of such a project in a country as unstable as Iraq. But an Iraqi legislator who sits on the marshland committee, says security has not been a problem.
The sheikh says the situation is stable, and donors are able to see that projects can be successfully implemented in the strife-torn country. He says that inspires confidence among both the international community and the local people that such projects can be carried out in Iraq.
At an international meeting in Tokyo Wednesday, the Iraqis issued an appeal for additional funding to solve remaining problems, including inadequate road and sanitation systems.
Additional financial aid is expected by the end of the year from Italy. The Japanese government has not yet made a further commitment, but a Foreign Ministry official says further funding is being considered.