msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/24/2005 4:13:28 PM ET 2005-08-24T20:13:28

A decade after Saddam Hussein had them drained to punish their occupants, the marshlands of southern Iraq, said to be the inspiration for the biblical Garden of Eden, are recovering at a “phenomenal rate” since Saddam's fall, the United Nations said Wednesday.

New satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover in just the past three years, with the marshes rebounding to about 37 percent of the area they covered in 1970, up from about 10 percent in 2002, the United Nations Environment Program said in a report describing a multimillion dollar restoration project funded by Japan.

“The evidence of their rapid revival is a positive signal, not only for the environment and the local communities who live there, but must be seen as a contribution to wider peace and security for the Iraqi people and the region as a whole,” UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer said in a statement.

Saddam drained much of the Mesopotamian waters between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by building dams, dikes and canals to punish the Marsh Arab inhabitants for supporting a Shiite Muslim rebellion following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He also ordered thousands killed.

All but 40,000 of the 450,000 locals fled or were killed.

‘Crime against humanity’
Iraq’s minister of water resources, Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, called Saddam’s decision to drain the marshlands “a crime against humanity” and said he hopes 80 percent of the marshlands will be restored in three years.

“It will help Iraqis return to a traditional way of life,” he said on the sidelines of a conference on global water management in Stockholm. “Even people in the capital, who have never seen the marshlands, are really proud of the project.”

The marshes, home to rare species like the Sacred Ibis bird, had been the Marsh Arabs' source for fishing, boating and small agriculture.

Of almost 3,600 square miles of marshes in 1970, the area shrank by 90 percent to 304 square miles by 2002. As recently as 2001, some experts forecast the marshlands would disappear by 2008.

But restoration efforts since the fall of Saddam reversed much of the damage, bringing the current area to 1,400 square miles. The expanse swelled to 50 percent of the 1970 range in the spring but then dwindled due to summer evaporation.

Iraqi engineers and tribes began re-flooding parts of the wetlands by cutting gashes in dikes in the euphoria of Saddam’s ouster in 2003.

Japan takes lead
Last year, the United Nations announced an $11 million project funded by Japan to help restore the marshes and provide clean drinking water and sanitation for 100,000 people living there. The program is providing settlements with water treatment systems and restoring reed beds that act as natural water filters. It is also training 250 Iraqis in wetland management and restoration.

Still, re-flooding the marshes requires a delicate balance of salt and plant life. The UNEP warns that more detailed field analysis of soil and water quality is needed to gauge the exact state of rehabilitation.

“While the re-flooding bodes well for the Iraqi marshes, their recovery will take many years,” Toepfer said. “We must continue to monitor the situation carefully and make the necessary long-term investment in marshlands management.”

At one time, the wetlands were the largest in the Middle East, filtering polluted water from northern cities and purifying it before it reached the southern rivers and the city of Basra.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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