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The first scientific study of Iraq's Mesopotamian marshes to have been carried out in several decades has revealed widespread ecological damage, but also that great potential exists to restore the environmentally, economically and culturally significant wetlands.

The marshes — considered by some scholars to be the site of the biblical 'Garden of Eden' — have sustained considerable damage, particularly during Saddam Hussein's leadership of Iraq. As a result, functioning ecosystems remain in just ten per cent of the original 15,000 square kilometres.

According to the research published today in Science, the problems include high levels of salt in both soil and water, and abnormal levels of selenium, a toxic metal that can accumulate up the food chain.

Despite this, the researchers, led by Curtis Richardson, of the Duke University Wetland Center in the United States, say that there is much potential for restoring a significant portion of the marshes.

The marshes were damaged as a result of widespread drainage and agricultural irrigation programmes carried out on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers between 1985 and 2000.

Among the most significant was Saddam Hussein's policy of actively draining the marshes in an effort to force out local people, known as Marsh Arabs, who have lived in and derived a livelihood from the wetlands for 5,000 years.

Formerly, the marshes had provided a large share of Iraq's supply of fish, and had also acted as natural filters, removing pollution from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers before they reached the sea. Since being drained, however, the fisheries rapidly declined, and salty, polluted water is now affecting marine life.

After Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, local people re-flooded part of the marshes by breaking open some of the dikes that had been constructed to divert water, and by March 2004, nearly 20 per cent of the original area had been re-flooded.

Richardson's team showed that native plant species are becoming established in some of these areas. However, they add that the number of species and of individuals are still below historical levels, and that many animals — including birds, fish and amphibians — are either absent, or present only in low numbers.

Millions of birds used to use the marshes as a permanent habitat while millions more visited them on their annual migration between African and Siberia.

"Unknown is the fate of the many highly threatened species of the marshlands and the future of these restored marshes as a flyway for Asia's wintering wildfowl," write Richardson and colleagues in Science.

Efforts to restore Iraq's degraded wetlands and the benefits they bring to local people are clearly important, says Nick Davidson, deputy secretary-general of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

Davidson told SciDev.Net that the key challenge — which is as much societal as it is ecological — is to determine whether to restore what existed before, or respond to what is needed now in the light of socio-economic changes in the region.

He says that the support of local communities was crucial to the success of wetland restoration initiatives. But he adds that many wetland systems "have the potential to restore themselves" provided there is an adequate supply of water.

Link to paper by Richardson et al in Science

Link to accompanying feature article in Science

Reference: Science: 307, 1307 (2005)

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