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UN launches project to save Iraq’s marshlands

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has launched an 11 million-dollar project to restore the environment and provide clean drinking water for Iraqis in the 5000-year-old Marshlands of Mesopotamia. The Marshlands, considered by some to be the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden, were massively damaged in the late 20th Century, partly as a result of new dams on the Tigris and Euphrates river systems and partly as a result of massive drainage operations by the previous Iraqi regime, according to the UNEP web site. During the seventies, more than 500,000 Arabs lived in the area but were displaced as a result of projects on the rivers.

In 2001, UNEP alerted the world to their plight when it released satellite images showing that 90 per cent of these fabled wetlands, home to rare and unique species like the Sacred Ibis and African darter, and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, had been lost.Experts fear the Marshlands could disappear altogether by 2008.

A UN survey found that most Iraqis in the region were collecting water directly from the Marshlands, that many settlements lacked basic sanitation and that waterborne diseases were commonplace. The Marshlands were vital to the fisheries of the Arab Gulf, filtering polluted water from northern cities and purifying it before it reached the southern rivers and the city of Basra. With the collapse of the former Iraqi regime in mid-2003, local residents began opening floodgates and breaching embankments in order to bring water back into the marshlands. Satellite images indicate that, by April this year, around a fifth or some 3,000 square kilometers of the marshes had been re-flooded.

A Japan-funded project, launched recently, will support the sustainable development and restoration of the Marshlands through implementation of environmentally sound technologies. The challenge now is to restore the environment and provide clean water and sanitation services to the up to 85,000 people living there.

Drinking water and sanitation systems will be installed in key communities and pilot wetlands restoration undertaken for the benefit of people and wildlife. The project, approved in the framework of the UN Iraq Trust Fund, will initially target around a dozen settlements with small-scale water treatment systems some of which are likely to be solar powered.

Other activities will include the setting up of a Marshland Information Network, an Internet-based system that will allow those with an interest in the region to share their ideas and strategies. Satellite images, documenting how restoration work is faring and chronicling changes in vegetation and the progress of re-flooding, will be posted on the site almost daily.

The project will also help train the Iraqi authorities, both at national government and local levels. It will train experts in wetland management and restoration, remote sensing analysis and community-based resource management. It is envisaged that this coordinated approach will be applied to the future development of a wider Marshlands strategy in the region.