U.N. seeks World Heritage status for Iraqi marshes

NAIROBI Fri Sep 5, 2008 1:40am EDT

A marsh Arab man paddles a boat loaded with reeds he gathered at the Chebayesh marsh in Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad July 27, 2008. REUTERS/Saad Shalash

A marsh Arab man paddles a boat loaded with reeds he gathered at the Chebayesh marsh in Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad July 27, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Saad Shalash

NAIROBI (Reuters) - The United Nations launched a plan on Friday to have an ancient wetland in southeast Iraq, thought to be the Biblical Garden of Eden, listed as a World Heritage Site.

The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) said the Marshlands were of cultural and ecological significance but had been almost completely drained in the 1990s during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Iraqi Environment Minister Nermeen Othman said in a statement issued by Nairobi-based UNEP.

"Because of what Saddam did, the Marshlands were in danger of completely disappearing, as was the centuries-old culture of the Marsh Arabs," Iraqi Environment Minister Nermeen Othman said in a statement issued by Nairobi-based UNEP.

"It had become an ecological but also a human tragedy."

Fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Marshlands are spawning grounds for Gulf fisheries and home to rare bird species like the Sacred Ibis. They also provide a resting spot for thousands of wildfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa.

The Marsh Arabs have lived there for thousands of years but Saddam accused them of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran and ordered their homeland to be dammed and drained.

Wildlife-rich wetlands that covered 9,000 square km (3,475 square miles) in the early 1970s had dwindled to just 760 square km (293 square miles) by 2002. Experts said the marshes might be lost completely within five years unless urgent action was taken.

After Saddam's downfall locals wrecked many of the dams to let the water rush back in and a $14 million UNEP restoration project prompted the return of thousands of birds and fish.

That included providing safe drinking water to residents, planting reeds to filter pollution and sewage, and the introduction of renewable energy schemes like solar power.

The Iraqi government says more than half the original wetlands have now been restored and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said valuable lessons had been learned.

"They provide a blueprint for the restoration of the many other damaged, degraded and economically-important wetland ecosystems across the world," he said in the statement.

UNEP is already designing a project to try to restore the environment of Mali's Lake Faguibine, which covered 590 square km (228 square miles) in the mid-1970s but had dried up by 2006.

UNEP said the soonest Iraq could realistically put its case to the World Heritage Committee was 2010. If approved, the Marshlands of Mesopotamia could be listed the following year.