23 July 2004 The United Nations today announced an $11 million project to help restore the marshlands of southern Iraq, considered by some to be the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden, after they were massively damaged by dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and a vast drainage operation carried out by the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein.
The project, funded by Japan, will support sustainable development through environmentally sound technologies, safe drinking water, sanitation and pilot wetland restoration for the Marsh Arabs, heirs to the 5,000-year-old civilization of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said.
In 2001, UNEP released satellite images showing that 90 per cent of these fabled wetlands, home to rare and unique species like the Sacred Ibis and African darter, and a spawning ground for fisheries, had been lost. Further studies released in 2003 showed that an additional 3 per cent, or 325 square kilometres, had gone. Experts feared the entire wetlands could disappear entirely by 2008.
The marshlands of Mesopotamia constitute the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and Western Eurasia and are widely considered to be culturally significant.
UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said the agency has long been documenting their destruction and alerting the world to their demise. “I am, therefore, delighted that the Japanese Government has stepped in to support a new beginning for the Marshlands and the Marsh Arabs,” he said.
With the collapse of the former regime in mid-2003, local residents began opening floodgates and breaching embankments to bring water back into the marshlands. Satellite images indicate that by April this year around a fifth, or 3,000 square kilometres, had been re-flooded. The challenge now is to restore the environment and provide clean water and sanitation services for up to 85,000 people living there.
A recent UN inter-agency survey found that most of the Marsh Arabs are collecting water directly from the marshlands. Many settlements lack basic sanitation with waste water draining into the street or nearest stream. As a result water-borne diseases are commonplace.
The new project will initially target around a dozen settlements with small-scale water treatment systems, some of which are likely to be solar powered. Reed beds and other marshland habitats that act as natural water-filtration systems will be restored, benefiting not only local residents but also providing new habitats for birds and other key wildlife.