Restoring the ’Garden of Eden’
Researchers report on the state of Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshes
While much of the world has focused on the war in Iraq, a group of wetland ecologists has been busy collecting data on the Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq. Formerly the largest wetland in Southwest Asia, the marshes are home to the native Ma’dan marsh dwellers, as well as numerous species of migrating waterfowl and game fish. Drainage of the wetlands as well as toxic contamination over the last twenty years devastated much of the marshlands. A mere 10 percent remain as viable wetlands.
After two years of study, Iraqi and other researchers will present their findings on the marshes’ current state, as well as offer their perspectives on hopes for wetland restoration during a special session held during the Ecological Society of America’s-INTECOL’s Joint Meeting. This marks the first time Iraqi ecologists have been to a western ecology meeting. It is also the first comprehensive data set on the status of the marshes collected by Iraqi scientists.
Organized by Curtis Richardson (Duke University, USA) and Barry Warner (Wetlands Research Centre, Ontario, Canada), the session will cover the current ecological state of the marshes, including studies on fish, birds, plants, quality of water and soils, as well as the outlook for restoration success and the challenges of boundary issues with other countries such as Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
Among the suite of presentations:
- Ali Farhan (Development Alternatives Inc., USA) will focus on the hydrology challenges of restoring the marshlands, which suffered severe damage during two decades of water diversion. Historically, the marshlands covered 15,000 – 20,000 square kilometers; presently only 10 percent remain as viable wetlands. Competing uses for the water flowing from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers makes restoration efforts very challenging. Irrigation, industrial, and hydropower demands all compete for the water which is vital to the marshlands. Farhan’s presentation, “The role of hydrology in marsh restoration in southern Iraq,” will discuss a program designed to help manage Iraq’s water resources. In a related talk, “Hydrological potential for the restoration of the marshes of southern Iraq,” Azzam Alwash (The Iraq Foundation) and Andrea Cattarossi (New Eden Team, Italy) will discuss an action plan being developed to restore the Mesopotamian marshes.
- Najah Hussain and colleagues from the College of Science and Agriculture in Iraq will relay how fish are faring in their presentation, “The restoration status of the biota in marshes in southern Iraq with an emphasis on fish communities.” Formerly dominant native fish populations are now rare, including commercially valuable species.
- Several presentations will explore the soil and water quality of the marshlands: Curtis Richardson’s (Duke University USA) talk, “Ecological assessment of the restoration status of the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq,” will relay the prospects of successfully restoring the wetlands in spite of challenges from toxic materials and saline soil conditions. Sama Sameer and colleagues from the Iraq Foundation will report on the biological and chemical response of some of the re-flooded wetland areas where the scientists identified more than 20 heavy metals and cancer-causing hydrocarbons. The potential for agriculture in the area will be explored in “Effect of tillage and nitrogen fertilizer on some physical properties of marsh soils and on yields of rice and corn,” which will be presented by Iraqi researchers from academic institutions and the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture.
- Majeed Al-Hilli (University of Baghdad), Barry Warner (Wetlands Research Group, Ontario, Canada) and colleagues will revisit historic surveys of the 371 species of wetland plants that once grew in the Mesopotamian marshes. Since many areas of the marshes no longer exist, the checklist of plants will help with restoration plans.
- Mudhafar Salim (Iraq Nature Conservation Society) and fellow researchers will provide results from a 2004/2005 bird survey, the first undertaken in the marshes since 1979. The earlier survey found over 324,000 waterfowl, including pelicans and flamingoes, of 79 species of bird. The newest survey suggests that newly inundated wetlands are supporting many important species, but well below historic numbers.
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