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Ecologists call for renewed efforts to restore Iraq marshes

Without adequate water, further funding and an improvement in the security situation, the continued ecological recovery of the Iraq marshes is in doubt, ecologists will tell the British Ecological Society's Annual Meeting next week.

Speaking at the BES's Annual Meeting at the University of Oxford from 5-7 September, Professor Curtis Richardson of Duke University will present the findings of the first detailed ecological analysis of the restoration status of the Iraq marshes.

According to Richardson: “Our recent field surveys have found a remarkable rate of native species reestablishment of macroinvertebrates, macrophytes, fish and birds in reflooded marshes. But the future availability of water for restoration is in question because of increasing urban and agricultural demands for water in Iraq, as well as in Turkey, Syria and Iran, suggesting only a portion of the former marshes can be restored. Landscape connectivity between marshes is also greatly reduced, causing concern about local species extinctions and lower diversity in isolated wetlands.”

The Iraq marshes - believed by some to be the biblical Garden of Eden - once covered an area twice that of the Florida Everglades and were famous for their biodiversity and cultural richness. According to a census conducted in the 1970s, the marshes were home to more than 80 bird species, including more than half the world's population of the rare marbled teal and more than 90% of the world's population of the Basrah reed warbler. Once important spawning and nursery grounds for coastal fish and penaeid shrimp, the area also served as a natural filter for waste and other pollutants in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and was home to thousands of Marsh Arabs.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Saddam Hussein's regime devastated the marshes by draining and burning them, at least in part to “punish” Marsh Arabs for their support of the Shi'a revolt following the first Gulf War.

Professor Richardson carried out field surveys in 2003 and 2004 and then helped train a local team of Iraqi scientists to continue monthly surveys of water quality and water flow, as well as monitoring of algae, insect, fish, bird and plant populations.

“Ecological surveys indicate that ecosystem restoration is taking place much faster in areas that have been reflooded than was predicted. This is due to the good quality and quantity of water now flowing down the Tigris and Euphrates due to several years of high snowmelt. Restoration of the Mesopotamian marshes is possible and in a much shorter time than earlier predicted provided the Ministries of Iraq can agree on a set minimum water allocation for the marshes that will sustain marsh ecosystem functions, especially during drought years,” Richardson says.

But he warns: “Support from US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international agencies is limited and future funding will depend on Iraq’s government willingness to provide continued funds to restore the marshes. The current internal instability and lawlessness in the country greatly exacerbates the problem.”

Becky Allen | alfa
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