Among a lifetime of evil, insane actions and twisted self-serving policies by and for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, perhaps one of the worst from an ecological perspective was his attempt to eliminate the marsh-dwelling Arabs of the huge reedbeds and marshes of southern Iraq by draining the marshes where they lived and which provided them with their livelihoods, food building materials and food, and on which their ancient culture was based.
12,000 kilometres squared of marshes, lying between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the area known historically as Mesopotamia (literally "between the rivers" in ancient Greek), this area is widely regarded as the cradle of Western civilisation, maybe the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. The birth of agriculture, cities, writing all began there.
Before Saddam's insane plan, around 250,000 marsh Arabs lived there. Millions of tonnes of desert soils were imported and used to build large embankments to divert river waters away from the marshes into huge drainage canals. The consequent disastrous drying up of the marshes destroyed this massively productive ecosystem with a 90% loss of area and the breaking up of the indigenous marsh Arab population until only a few thousand remained. Huge populations of birds either died out or left, reedbeds dried out and turned to dust, and fisheries were destroyed. When Saddam's regime was overthrown in 2003, localized breaches in embankments were undertaken in an unco-ordinated ad hoc way, leading to some restoration.
But the process really took off when an ex-pat Iraqi, Azzam Alwash, now a successful owner of an engineering firm in California, returned to the area and began working to restore the marshes. In due course, he established a conservation organisation, Nature Iraq, to lead the work on what is now probably the world's largest habitat restoration project. Struggling with droughts, declining water in the rivers due to upstream dams, e.g. in Turkey, and the difficulties of working in the dangerous security nightmare conditions of post-invasion Iraq, they have nevertheless managed to restore large tracts of marshland and the reedbeds, birds and fish are returning, in some case quite spectacularly. And the people are coming back, with the prospect of a vibrant repopulated "Garden of Eden".
The link above provides more information and a video, based on a BBC2 documentary about the project. More power to the people taking back their land, their water and their inheritance!
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