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Satellite images show that Iraq's Mesopotamian marshes, which almost vanished during Saddam Hussein's rule, are rapidly recovering.

The marshes — reputed to be the biblical Garden of Eden — are a major source of fish and freshwater for local people, as well as being an important habitat for wildlife.

"The near total destruction of the Iraqi marshlands was a major ecological and human disaster, robbing the Marsh Arabs of a centuries-old culture and way of life," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Hussein drained the marshes in a deliberate attempt to force out the Arabs, a people whose livelihoods have depended on the wetlands for thousands of years.

Earlier this year, SciDev.Net reported that scientists were optimistic that the marshes could be restored despite having been reduced to an area one-tenth the size of what they used to be (see 'Garden of Eden can be restored, say scientists').

Satellite images from March 2003, when the wetlands reached
their lowest ever (left) and May 2005 (right). Re-flooded areas
are blue-black, wetland vegetation bright green within a black
background and other terrestrial vegetation are in shades of
Photo Credit (NASA / MODIS)

According to the new satellite images, produced by NASA, almost 40 per cent of the marshes present in the 1970s have recovered.

Since 2004, when Hussein was ousted, UNEP has been working with the Iraqi government and local people to help restore and manage the wetlands. The project, funded by Japan, has trained 250 Iraqis in methods to restore their habitat and community-based ways of managing resources.

UNEP says research is needed to assess the state of the marshland's soil and water. The agency adds that although initial recovery has been rapid, full recovery could take many years.

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