Iraq's marshlands, nearly destroyed by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990's, have recovered to a remarkable extent. A United Nations agency overseeing the environmental recovery project reports that while most of the indigenous human population, which fled after the area went dry, has yet to return, the wetlands' diverse wildlife is back in significant numbers.

The United Nations Environment Program on Thursday said satellite images and analysis show nearly half of the total Iraqi marshlands area has been re-flooded.

Images taken from space five years ago revealed that 90 percent of the marshlands had been lost as a result of Saddam Hussein blocking the flow of the Tigris River. Saddam's act was in revenge for a 1991 uprising by Shi'ites in southern Iraq.

The encouraging news of the marshlands' recovery was released a day ahead of an international donors' conference in Kyoto concerning the unique ecosystem.

It is one of the world's largest wetlands. Of the 500,000 so-called Marsh Arabs who lived there a decade and a half ago, an estimated 100,000 have returned.

Wildlife is also flourishing again. The U.N. agency says 13 of 15 fish species have returned and nearly all of the bird species are back, albeit in smaller numbers than previously.

Hideo Fukushima, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's environment division, cites these statistics as a rare dose of good news out of war-ravaged Iraq.

Fukushima says the marshlands recovery project is an actual achievement of sustainable development in a country that has been facing many difficulties.

The project is primarily funded by the Japanese and Italian governments. It is being managed remotely - mainly out of Japan - because the U.N. does not allow its officers to work in Iraq due to the poor security situation.

Given the political instability and growing civil violence, the UNEP's on-sight coordinator for the marshlands project, Ali al-Lami, acknowledges that the project might not be able to achieve its full goals.

Lami says it is a difficult task, but those working to save the marshlands are confronting the challenge for the sake of the Iraqi people.

One of the greatest challenges is providing suitable drinking water for the fishermen, reed mat weavers and other marshland dwellers. The land absorbed too much salt when the marsh beds were dry, and the water that is refilling the beds is now too salty.

Desalination plants in six communities are now providing clean water to some 22,000 people living in the area.

In addition to being home to species of animals and plants that scientists say are irreplaceable, the region is the origin of the ancient Sumerian and Babylonians civilizations.