The war in Iraq is taking place around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, what archaeologists call the cradle of Western civilization. The historic rivers flow into the Mesopotamian marshes, which Biblical scholars believe inspired the Garden of Eden. But in the last decade, those marshes have all but disappeared. The United Nations says the loss of the marshes is a catastrophe on the order of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforests, or the drying of the Aral Sea. The U.N. Environmental Program this week said restoring those marshes should be a part of postwar reconstruction.
As a young boy, civil engineer Azzam Alwash remembers paddling through narrow channels between the reeds in the Mesopotamian marshes. He says reeds six meters high lined the winding waterways.
"You're passing through these waterways surrounded by reeds," he said. "And you're pushing yourself through and then suddenly you go into an opening. And right in front of your opening you see a settlement of huts that are woven out of these reed beds. You see water buffalo frolicking in the water. You see kids sitting on the banks of these artificial islands fishing."
These settlements belong to the Marsh Arabs, a civilization that traces its roots back five thousand years. Archaeologists believe the Marsh Arabs are descended from the Sumerians, who built the world's first recorded civilization on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The fish and shrimp that thrive in the Mesopotamian marshlands are major sources of protein in the region's diet. Migrating birds, including some endangered species, stop there as they fly between the Nile River and Siberia. And the wetlands filter out contaminants before they reach the Persian Gulf.
All this makes the Mesopotamian marshlands significant on three levels, according to Professor Tom Crisman, program director at the University of Florida's Center for Wetlands.
"We're talking about a regional significance, we're talking about a national significance, and we're talking about very much of a localized significance," said Professor Crisman.
The marshlands are the largest remaining wetlands in the Middle East. Until recently, they covered up to 20,000 square kilometers. But now, less than one-tenth remains. More than 30 large dams in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq have diverted water from the Tigris and Euphrates for irrigation, flood control, and hydroelectric power. And more dams are planned.
But the most dramatic losses came in the last decade. Iraq built massive structures to drain the wetlands. Mr. Alwash, who is also an Iraqi democracy advocate, questions the Iraqi government's motives.
"The ostensible reason is that in fact they wanted to dry the area so that they can reclaim the land for agriculture," he said. "As if Iraq is devoid of agricultural land. Anybody that knows anything about the marshes and knows anything about soil and salinity level of water knows that claim is ludicrous."
Mr. Alwash and others say the real motivation was to punish the local residents, who supported an uprising against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Research officer Hassan Partow wrote a United Nations Environment Program report on the marshlands' destruction. He would not comment on the government's motivations. But, he says, the land is not being used extensively for farming.
"There has been some agricultural reclamation in the area, but overall this has been fairly limited," he said.
Instead, the entire ecosystem has fallen victim to the combined effects of the upstream dams and what critics say are Iraq's punitive drainages. Mr. Partow's UNEP report says the scale and speed of land cover change in the Mesopotamian marshlands have been extraordinary. In less than a decade, Mr. Partow says, one of the world's largest and most significant wetland ecosystems has completely collapsed.
"The area has regressed from a rich and complex web of life to a salt-encrusted desert," said Mr. Partow.
Mr. Partow says several species of birds, mammals, and fish are now extinct or on the verge of extinction. Without the climate-moderating marshes, the U.N. report predicts rising temperatures, declining rainfall, and dangerous dust storms. And the United Nations estimates up to 290,000 Marsh Arabs have been driven from their homes.
But some see a hope for the Mesopotamian marshlands in postwar Iraqi reconstruction. The University of Florida's Tom Crisman says there are small remnants of the Mesopotamian marshlands on the border with Iran.
"We think these are reasonably intact. And that's a very good nucleus from which to expand the restoration effort," said Mr. Crisman.
But it won't be easy. Re-flooding the wetlands will have to be done gradually and carefully because of the heavy buildup of salts and pesticides that draining left behind. Resettling the Marsh Arabs adds an additional level of complexity. And growing populations in the region are putting increasing demands on water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that feed the marshlands.
For the past 20 years, Mr. Crisman has been working on restoring wetlands in Spain, Greece, and Egypt. He says these projects ask a basic question. "How little water do you need for the functioning of a wetland? Most of the time you're asking how much water can you get. But here we're asking how little water can we have and still have an ecology that's going to function," he said.
Mr. Alwash, the civil engineer, helped bring an international group of experts, including Mr. Crisman, together to study marshland reconstruction, with funding from the U.S. State Department. Perhaps after reconstruction the next generation of Iraqis will again paddle through the reeds in the Mesopotamian marshes as Mr. Alwash did, and as people there have done for five thousand years.