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Planet Ark World Environment News Iraq's dried-out marshlands reviving, UN says

Date: 30-May-03
Country: SWITZERLAND
Author: Robert Evans

The United Nations' environmental agency UNEP said mechanical diggers had broken down barriers and levees built under Saddam, allowing water to flow into the area - believed by some archaeologists to be the Garden of Eden in scripture.

Satellite images of the area, once home to some 450,000 largely Muslim Shi'ite Marsh Arabs made famous by British traveller and explorer Wilfred Thesiger, "dramatically reveal streams and waterways...surging back to life", UNEP said in its website report.

Saddam is believed to have diverted rivers in retaliation for what he saw as support by the Marsh Arabs for an uprising against his rule after the 1991 Gulf War.

Tens of thousands of people were forced to leave as the marshes dried up, leaving an estimated population of only some 40,000 on the eve of the U.S.-led war in March to oust Saddam.

The UNEP site (www.grid.unep.ch) carried the images showing the return of water to some of the most desiccated areas of the region, where people have lived on small islands and moved around on thin wooden boats for over 2,000 years.

Parts of the marshes, UNEP said, had been inundated as floodgates had been opened upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that flowed into the area before their waters were diverted by Saddam.

Officials of Saddam's government said at the time the projects that led to the drying of the marshes were aimed at feeding water into other development areas.

UNEP said some dams had now been opened upstream from the marshes and heavy rains had also helped lift water levels in the swamplands.

Local people had been involved in piecemeal efforts to revive the marshlands, but a more orderly and coordinated programme was urgently needed to ensure the recovery could be extended to the entire region and sustained, it said.

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