Posted by: Dan | November 5, 2010

Restoring Mesopotamia

There are some places in the world that are hotspots of biodiversity, providing habitat for an amazing number of plant and animal species. Indigenous people of such regions depend on these areas for their livelihoods, and even for city-dwellers these places provide clean air and water as well as natural beauty.

One of these hotspots could literally be called an oasis in the middle of the desert. It has in the past been a vital habitat for Marbled Teal and Basra Reed Warbler. I’m talking about the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq, which until the late 1980s was a natural wetland in the floodplain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These marshes were originally 20,000 sq. km. – that’s twice the size of either the Everglades or Cyprus.

Aerial view of the restored Mesopotamian Marshes (© Stephen Foote)

It’s incredible to think about the importance of these wetlands, and just as difficult to appreciate their scale. But in an attempt to eradicate the indigenous Marsh Arabs, Saddam Hussein drained these tremendous marshes. Within years, only 10% of the marshes remained. Hussein did this through construction of large embankments hundreds of kilometers long to keep the rivers’ waters out, and several enormous canals to further divert the rivers around the marshes on their way to the Persian Gulf. As the region turned to barren desert, the interdependent communities of people and wildlife were virtually wiped out.

Abandoned boat in Iraq (© Stephen Foote)

But the story isn’t over. PBS Nature has an hour-long documentary being broadcasted Sunday November 7, at 8:00PM ET in the United States on one man’s hopes to restore these wetlands in the middle of one of the most politically troubled and dangerous places on Earth: Braving Iraq. The publicists were kind enough to send me an advance DVD of the show, and I got to watch it early. Dr. Azzam Alwash [photo (© Stephen Foote)], an Iraqi exile who settled in the U.S. during Hussein’s rule and is an engineer there, returned to his home country to recreate the marshes he remembered so well from his childhood.

In 2003, Alwash and his team began excavating the embankments and re-flood the central marshes. Amazingly, within 6 months reeds had begun sprouting from seeds that had lain dormant for a decade. Birds and fish began to repopulate the restored marshes – I assume from the 10% of the original marshland that remained – and the people began returning too.

Mesopotamian Marshes 2000-2009 (Credit: NASA)

The principle videography of the Braving Iraq program was that of conservationists going into the restored marshlands, trying to find rare and important birds there. You might want to watch the program for its informational content, but you could just read that. What makes this show a gem is the depection of the birds, and the conservationists who are looking with optimism for their return.

One part showed the cameramen going into the marshes to see a reportedly large flock of Marbled Teal. And sure enough, on camera, they witness a flock upwards in size of 40,000 Teal, accounting for perhaps 50% of the global population in one flock.

They also videotape a Basra Reed Warbler with chicks on a nest amidst the reeds. This is another critical species for the marshes, as about 90% of the global population breeds in the marshes and no where else.

Also at risk due to habitat loss are the Sacred Ibis and African Darter. 7 animal species ahve already gone extinct here, including the Indian Crested Porcupine, the Bandicoot Rat and the Marsh Gray Wolf.

To accomplish all of this, Alwash founded the conservationism NGO Nature Iraq, and they’ve focused their early efforts on restoring just the central marshes. As I understood it, they’ve made the central marsh a national wildlife refuge in Iraq – a park much like the Everglades in the US.

They’re work isn’t done yet either. Braving Iraq reports the difficulties that they’re still having. A multi-year drought has hit the region since the restoration efforts began in 2003, and the region gets much less water to begin with compared to in the 1980’s, due to a long list of dams that have been built upstream in Syria, Iran and northern Iraq, but most of them have been built in Turkey.

Probably out of necessity, the show also spends time on the logistical nightmare of working (and filming) in Iraq. They couldn’t go anywhere without heavily-armed security forces. This is all well-beyond the scope of an NGO or your standard film crew, and I assume that the US government has been strongly supporting the efforts of Nature Iraq.

But just the scale. Twice the size of Cyprus. Imagine that. And in the video the excavations of Hussein’s embankments don’t look like much either. It’s amazing that the water has returned so easily. But they showed largest of Hussein’s canals in the video, which was as yet untouched during filming, and it’s enormous. Alwash was at the time working on plans to re-route the waters back to the marshes, and that would be quite the boom to his efforts if Nature Iraq can manage that.

Braving Iraq will air at 8:00PM Sunday night (November 7) in the US, and viewable online after that.


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