Restoring the marshes of Eden

02/16/05

In one of the rare good news stories coming out of Iraq, the country's almost-decimated wetlands have begun rebounding under the efforts of local residents and the new government in Iraq, monitored by an international team of scientists.

Dr. Barry Warner, a University of Waterloo scientist who leads the Canadian contingent of the project, has been working with Iraqi scientist Dr. Majeed Rasheed Al-Hilli of the University of Baghdad to see how the plant communities in the Ahwar wetlands of southern Iraq changed under Saddam Hussein's rule.

Dr. Al-Hilli conducted the only large-scale study of Iraq's massive marshes in the 1970s, and his data provide a baseline from which scientists can begin to gauge future restoration efforts. The picture produced by this before and after method is shocking, given that it happened in just 10 to 20 years.

"We're talking about an area about the size of Lake Ontario that has been reduced to about a tenth of its original size," says Dr. Warner. "So, if you can imagine Lake Ontario disappearing, that's essentially what has happened to the marshes in southern Iraq."

The biologist, whose work is supported by Science and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC), will take part in a symposium on this topic at the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington D.C. on February 20.

Dr. Warner says the majority of the wetlands have become dry, salt-encrusted desert, as opposed to a vibrant marsh fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

"It was largely dominated by open water, and vegetated by plants like our common reed plant. You've probably seen these big, tall grass-like plants in ditches along the roadside here in Ontario. It's a form of that species, except that it's about three times that high," he says.

"So, it's a huge grassy marsh, with other plants such as water lilies and cattails. There were lots of fish – and fish are very important to local people as a food source – and there were other vertebrates such as water buffalo, wild boar and the famous endemic smooth-coated otter."

Since the war ended, Dr. Warner says, the local people have begun breaking the dams and canals Hussein put in place to divert the water from the marshes. This has resulted in 20 to 30 per cent of the once-dried land being covered in water again.

Canadian scientists haven't been able to enter Iraq to study the marshes, but they have held scientific conferences in nearby Amman, Jordan. Warner says part of his role is getting Iraqi scientists up to speed after 20 years of "living in a scientific vacuum."

"During Saddam's time, and because of UN sanctions, the universities were totally cut off from the rest of the world. They were not allowed to communicate or talk with anyone," he says.

"That's a big part of our project, to teach and to train Iraqis how to be wetland scientists again, according to 2005 standards."

Warner says Iraqi scientists have just begun conducting the country's first winter bird survey in 20 years, thanks to training sessions with BirdLife International. He adds that this will be a big step forward in understanding exactly how the disappearing wetlands have impacted local species.

"We'll have a good sense after that, I hope, of what kinds of birds are there, what kinds of new birds have come back into the reflooded areas."

Dr. Warner says that a group of Iraqi scientists and students will be coming to work and study at the University of Waterloo this summer.

"Again, we want to try and reacquaint them with the modern world," he says.

Dr. Warner's AAAS Presentation
Sunday, February 20
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 noon
Part of the symposium "Can the Mesopotamian Marsh's Garden of Eden in Iraq be Restored?"

Source: Eurekalert & others

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