IRAQ: Special on efforts to restore Marshlands - OCHA IRIN
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IRAQ: Special on efforts to restore Marshlands

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Some 50 percent of marshland has been restored

AL-HAMMAR MARSHLAND, 27 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - In early April, 2003, before the end of the US-led battle to oust the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Ghazi Assi opened one of the rusted gates that had been built more than 12 years earlier to drain the water from the marshes where he had once lived.

His efforts, and those of his friends and family, were designed to restore the delicate balance between water and land that made Iraq's southern marshlands home to farmers and fishermen for centuries.

The Marsh Arabs occupied islands on the wetlands made from reeds that have had a unique ecology, with birds, fish, animals and plants that cannot be found elsewhere.

"We knew he (Saddam) would fall and we wanted to break down the barriers for the water to come in as soon as possible," Assi told IRIN. "My livelihood was always here. Before the water was drained, I also used to plant a lot of water melons and other fruits. We used to hunt different kinds of wild birds, as well as catching the local fish," he added.

Today, Assi lives half-way between the marshes and the surrounding farms. "I can't live completely on the land all the time. I also have to live off the water's resources as well. My children come here to help. But my wife can't stay here because there is no electricity."

Ghazi was lucky because his house, in Sallal village at al-Hammar Marshes, close to Basra, which is surrounded by water and marsh reeds, was still standing. Most of his village, however, was flattened like many other villages after the water was drained, turning the fertile marshes into infertile land.

Most of the marshlands were drained by the former regime during the 1990s in order to deprive the opposition Shi'ite forces of safe havens, following an uprising against Saddam Hussein. After they were drained and dried, they were burned and villages were destroyed.

Numbering some 250,000 people in 1991, the number of Marsh Arabs still living in their ancestral homeland today is believed to be fewer than 40,000. Human rights groups estimate that 100,000 Marsh Arabs are displaced within Iraq and some 60,000 are said to have fled to Iran.

"All these people left their houses while the marshes were being drained," Hamdan Mohammed, fishing in the middle of the wetlands with his son, told IRIN. "A few months ago, all this was land you could walk on. For a long time we couldn't do any fishing whatsoever. Now the water is full of fish, so maybe the whole country won't need to import so much food for a some time to come."

For nearly a decade, thousands of Marsh Arabs have stayed in the country lived in dusty roadside villages, earning a living from land instead of water, from wheat instead of fish.

Hamdan said that when his house was flattened like other houses in the village, people were merciless. "All the wires were stolen when people left their homes in 1992. There was no electricity as well," he explained.


The marshes are divided into three area, al-Hawizeh which is 3,500 sq km, al-Hammar, 3,000 sq km, and al-Qurna, which is 2,400 sq km, all surrounded by the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in three southern governorates of Emmara (Maysan), Basra and Nasiriyah. "The three were drained and burnt," Husayn Ali Jasim, head of the Water Resources Office in Basra, told IRIN.

Al-Hammar and al-Qurna suffered 85 percent degradation while al-Hawizeh, which straddles the frontier with Iran and is partly watered by Iranian rivers, has been subjected to 65 percent degradation.

UXO's at the gate to the marshes

"We started a programme at the end of 2003 to restore the water and protect the land from the normal flooding taking place at this time of year. Almost 3,500 square km was recovered and water was returned to some of the area. We also regained 2,400 square km from the al-Hammar marshlands," he said. Only up to 10 percent of the original population had returned to the marshes, according to Jasim.

Although many experts feared that the damage to the soil in the region might be irreversible, recent studies of re-flooded areas have provided encouraging evidence that the wetlands can be partially restored.

The British NGO, Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (AMAR), has been working in the marshlands from 1991 to 1995 by which time the drainage of the marshlands was under way and 50,000 marsh people had fled into Iran. The NGO resumed work in April 2003 and started its public health activities by rehabilitation of the first primary health care centre in Basra.

There are now eight fully functional clinics delivering primary health care services to a population of 41,033 Marsh Arabs. Other activities include constant analysis of the conditions and seed and fertiliser distribution.

"Fifty percent of the marshes have been restored and the sources of actions were varied," founder of AMAR and British MP and MEP, Baroness Emma Nicholson, told IRIN from Brussels.

The Baroness explained that the first sector to be re-flooded came after the Iraqi army accidentally blew up a water blockade during the war last year. "After this, farmers reclaimed land and they are planting tomatoes and plants and reeds are beginning to grow," she said.

The second biggest flow of water came from the Iranian side, when a dam was lifted, action the government had promised to take following the ousting of Saddam. "This released a massive amount of water on the eastern side of the marshes and it has had a wonderful impact," she added.

Following this, the Marsh Arabs themselves started to breakdown blockades to release water back into the historical parched land.

However, the Baroness said there was more work to be done. "The marsh people are farmers too and they need land to graze buffalo and I'm concerned that the rights of these people will be ignored," she stressed. "What is needed is for UNESCO to mark this area as a World Heritage site and that would be the solution," she explained.


A conference of the Maysan Marsh Arabs Council in March, 2004, in the southern city of Amarah, marked the first time that Iraq's Marsh Arabs publicly expressed their wishes and concerns. Several hundred of them gathered at the conference, according to a report from the Maysan Province office of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). They met scientific experts and government officials and discussed a number of projects to restore portions of Iraq's wetlands along the Tigris River basin in the south.

In addition, a project called the Iraq Marshlands Restoration Programme funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is making progress too. Spanning over 12 months, it supports the restoration of the ecosystem through improved management and strategic reflooding, and provides social and economic assistance to the local population.

Anna Presswell, the programme coordinator of the project, said there was now increasing interest in this long-ignored area from the international community. She explained that last February a team of more than 70 experts from six countries had made extensive visits throughout the area and met with local tribal leaders and people to determine their needs.

Some of the project activities include access landscape flooding, large-scale crop demonstrations for field crops and horticulture, extending veterinary services to marsh communities, restoring wild stocks, establishing a model fish farm, and establishing primary health clinics as centres for medical services and related educational outreach.

Some 50 percent of marshland has been restored

Azhar Ali, a professor at the Agricultural College for the University of Basra and a researcher for the programme, said the project will benefit particularly those living in the middle of the wetlands.

"They are the ones who are in the worst situation. They live in very unhealthy conditions and many of them, especially the children, suffer from diarrhoea and skin diseases. The amount of mosquitoes is incredible. You can see them on people's skin," she told IRIN.

"They are so poor that they are taking more care of their water buffaloes than their children since the animals give them an income," she added.

There are around 5,000 families living on the water and access to medical care is poor. "We are trying to contact them regularly and make them aware of more healthy lives," Ali said, adding that it could take up to three days to make a visit to the doctor and return home.

Although the project aims to restore the lands to their former conditions, it is not expected that all the people will come back to live as they did before.

"Ninety percent of the Marsh Arabs are now marsh dwellers. They live around the marshes in agricultural lands. They come to do fishing but leave to go back home at the end of the day. It's a very harsh life inside," Presswell said.

Other recent IRAQ reports:

Southerners expect peaceful poll,  17/Jan/05

Fallujah residents angry at city's devastation,  13/Jan/05

Interview with the vice-president of the Higher Independent Election Commission (HIEC), Farid Ayar,  12/Jan/05

Youth centre needs support to bring communities together,  10/Jan/05

Parents concerned as child kidnappings increase,  10/Jan/05

Other recent Environment reports:

mauritius: Call for action over survival of small islands, 10/Jan/05

WEST AFRICA: IRIN-WA Weekly 258 covering 1-7 January 2005, 7/Jan/05

IRAQ: Humanitarian chronology 2004, 4/Jan/05

SYRIA: Award given to child friendly village, 31/Dec/04

IRAQ: Malfunctioning concrete factory makes locals' lives a misery, 29/Dec/04

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