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Drained by Saddam, restored by nature - Iraqi marshlands make a comeback

Sunday, March 17, 2013 - 03:14

Drained by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, Iraq's southern marshlands are undergoing a remarkable transformation. Saddam's attempt to destroy the wetlands came in response to an uprising by Marsh Arabs after the Iran-Raq war but, since his capture and execution, Saddam's act of revenge has been turned back and the marshes are slowly regaining their health. Elly Park has more.

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After nearly two decades Iraq's southern marshlands are thriving once again. Many believe the area was the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, and for centuries it teemed with life, sustaining a large population of Marsh Arabs. But then, in the early 1990s at the height of his power, President Saddam Hussein, turned his attention to the marshlands and in particular the Marsh Arabs whom he accused of treachery during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. In an act of revenge, he destroyed villages and dammed the Tigris and Euphrates river systems that fed the wetlands, turning them into a barren moonscape. The water ran out, the traditional, cleansing spring floods that washed salt out of the soil stopped flowing..and the people left. But with the end of the regime, nature has made a remarkable comeback, unexpected, even to Jassim al-Assadi of the country's first and only environmental organization 'Nature Iraq.' It came though, at a cost. (SOUNDBITE) JASSIM AL-ASSADI, CONSULTANT ENGINEER AT NATURE IRAQ, SAYING: "The revival has been very quick. Reeds, fish and a vital diverse food chain have returned. However, there is a difference between the Iraqi marshes as they were in the 70s and 80s of the last century, and the marshes today. At that time, waters were fresh with a salinity of no more than 300-400 parts per million (PPM), while today, the salinity of the Euphrates River reaches up to 2,000 parts per million, whereas the salinity of the Tigris ranges between 900-1000 parts per million." While Iraqi engineers are working hard to undo past damages the salinity problem may never be solved.. But the wetlands have brought birds and fish back to the area… as well as humans. Sixty-one-year-old Khashin Jouda is a Marsh Arab, and spends hours each day cutting reeds for buffalo feed and building material.. He says it's a hard life. (SOUNDBITE) MARSH DWELLER KHASHIN TA'YEM JOUDA, SAYING: "But thank God, the situation is much better than before." While life is returning to the marshes, activist Azzam Alwash is worried that it will never return to its full glory. (SOUNDBITE) AZZAM ALWASH, HEAD OF NATURE IRAQ NGO, SAYING: "We cannot bring back all the marshes as long as there are dams on the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. This is a fact and we have to admit it. According to the current plan for the revival of the marshes, we can revive about 75 percent of Iraq's marshes which were there in 1973." Alwash says that in the past decade the population in the marshlands has increased ten-fold- from 6,000 in 2003 to 66,000 in 2013, and that gradually the waterways are reviving the traditions and culture of the Marsh Arabs' centuries-old lifestyle.

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Drained by Saddam, restored by nature - Iraqi marshlands make a comeback

Sunday, March 17, 2013 - 03:14