Restoration efforts in Iraq's degraded marshes to be described in D.C. news briefing and symposium

02/10/05

Information disclosed at the press briefing will remain under embargo until the start-time of 10 a.m. on Saturday, 19 February

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Duke University Wetland Center director Curtis Richardson has made two post-invasion trips to Iraq and also conducted a training session in Jordan for Iraqi scientists as part of initial efforts to restore the heavily degraded Mesopotamian marshes, which some scholars consider the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden.

Richardson and three other researchers will hold a news briefing on their efforts and experiences at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Saturday, Feb. 19 in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel during the American Association for the Advancement of Science's 2005 annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Reporters should go to the Taft Room.

He and his colleagues -- Azzam Alwash, an engineer with the Iraq Foundation in Washington, D.C.; Peter Reiss, an anthropologist with Development Alternatives, Inc., in Bethesda, Md.; and Barry Warner, a wetland ecologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario -- will also speak at a 10:30 a.m. to noon Feb. 20 symposium he organized to address the question: "Can the Mesopotamian Marshes' Garden of Eden in Iraq be Restored?"

That symposium will be held at the lobby level of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in the Executive Room.

What Richardson calls a "treasure of unbelievable environmental proportions," the marshlands have long served as a major wildlife sanctuary as well as a refuge for the human Marsh Arab culture that has lived amid its tall reeds and waterways for 5,000 years.

The marshlands' decline began about 20 years ago with the start of dam building in Iraq and neighboring countries that reduced water flow to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers supplying the wetlands. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein also targeted the marshes for draining to retaliate against the Marsh Arabs for uprisings following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

By the time Hussein's regime was deposed, an international panel estimated that the original 7,700 square mile marshlands area had been reduced by 90 percent, in some cases leaving nothing more than salt-encrusted dustbowls.

In June, 2003 and again in February and March of 2004, Richardson and other researchers traveled through the area, often under guard, to conduct water, soil and wildlife surveys. They also worked with Iraqi scientists -- some of whose laboratories had been looted -- to launch rehabilitation projects.

Those trips have left Richardson, who is a professor of resource ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, simultaneously saddened by the amount of destruction and heartened by evidence for marsh recovery.

He also found some Marsh Arabs have begun returning to their old ways, while others are newly incorporating agriculture into their more-traditional lifestyles of fishing, water buffalo herding and reed gathering.

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