Iraqi environmental officials said Thursday that part of their country's fabled marshlands have been restored with international help, but further effort is needed to revive the ecosystem.
"Our objectives are to restore ecosystems in the marshlands, and also to control and monitor factors affecting bio-diversity," said Iraqi Deputy Environment Minister Tauma Helou, who was in Japan for a seminar on marshlands.
Believed by some to be the original biblical "Garden of Eden," the marshlands nearly vanished in the 1990s, when former dictator Saddam Hussein drained much of the Mesopotamian waters.
By 2002, the marshes had shrunk to one-tenth of their 1970 area of 3,600 square miles.
"Despite all the difficulties we face — including the security situation — we have to move forward," Helou said.
Helou said the government also urgently needs to provide clean drinking water, create jobs, education and improve living standards for the residents of the marshlands, which are mostly in southern Iraq.
Iraq has restored its marshlands to about half of their 1970 levels and many former residents have returned to the marshes. About 22,000 people living in the area have access to safe drinking water, up from 15,000 people two years ago, according to the United Nations Environment Program, which is leading the marshland restoration project.
UNEP has set up six facilities to purify water in the marshes for residents.
"Our monitoring studies have found very positive signs," said Ali Al Lami, the UNEP project's national coordinator, who was also in Japan for a marshland conference that begins Friday in Kyoto. "But we need to rehabilitate and reconstruct other areas of marshlands."
He also urged international support to help Iraq to establish an agreement to set both quality and quantity standards for river water flowing into Iraq from neighboring Turkey and Syria.
In November 2005, the Iraqi government reached an agreement with several donor countries, including the U.S., Italy and Japan, to coordinate marshland preservation activities.
Hideo Fukushima, director of the global environment division of Japan's Foreign Ministry, said Japan hopes its technological know-how in water environment can contribute to the marshlands restoration.
Japan backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and sent ground troops for a non-combat, humanitarian mission in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah in 2004. The troops purified water and rebuilt schools and hospitals before they were withdrawn in July. Japan has since expanded its Kuwait-based air operations.