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Iraq's "Garden Of Eden" Begins To Blossom Again (2005)

Abdul Jabar Muhsin, 34, is struggling to get his life back to normal in southern Iraq's once-lush marshlands, which were devastated by former president Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s.

"It is still too hard to get back to our normal life of breeding cattle and buffaloes, and planting and fishing," Muhsin said. He and his family were among thousands of Marsh Arabs forced to flee the lowlands of southern Iraq, also known as the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial salt marsh, in 1993.

The fabled marshlands were home to millions of native and migratory birds as well as Marsh Arabs, who had fished and grazed water buffalo in its waters for more than 5,000 years.

The 100,000 Marsh residents who have returned live in houses made of reeds and papyrus. Hygiene conditions are poor as they collect waste and sewage in holes underground, and then drain it into the marshes.

Muhsin said large chunks of the marshlands area in Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces were experiencing many difficulties, including lack of clean drinking water, sewage treatment and electricity. "The area had electricity during Saddam's era but now gets only about four hours' supply a day," he said.

The area's problems are compounded by lack of security, said Abdullah Ramadan, an official with the Marshlands revival center in Basra. This has prevented government officials and international aid workers from following up on development projects in the marshlands.

These include a United Nations-sponsored project to help restore the marshes by providing clean drinking water and sanitation for the inhabitants.

The program aims to provide villages with water treatment systems and to restore reed beds that act as natural water filters. It also will train 250 Iraqis in wetland management and restoration.

"There are signs of life returning to the marshlands," said Ramadan, adding that the region was still far from being as it was in the 1970s. "Of the almost 3,600 square miles of marshes in 1970, the area shrank by 90 percent to 300 square miles in 2002."

Ramadan said that about one-third of those forced to leave the area after the marshes were drained have now returned. But many have done so simply because the areas in central and northern Iraq where they have lived since the 1990s have become unsafe.

Following the first Gulf war in 1991, Ssaddam revived a program to divert the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers away from the marshes in retribution for a failed Shi'ite uprising. Most Marsh Arabs are Shi'ite Muslims.

Hussein's plan transformed these wetlands into desert, forcing some 300,000 inhabitants out, according to Ramadan.

Since the start of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, efforts to restore the marshes have gradually revived the area as water is restored to the former desert.

Iraqi engineers and tribal members began re-flooding parts of the wetlands by cutting gashes in dykes. Plants are once again growing, former residents have been returning and hunting and fishing have been revived

The Sunni-led resistance to coalition forces often targets Arab Shi'ites and sectarian killings in Iraq have escalated significantly since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra in February.

"Since these [marshlands] families are Shi'ites, they have been forced to go back to their homes because of the anti-Shi'ite campaign in these areas," Ramadan said.

Life in the marshlands remains hard as poverty is rife, Muhsin said. His 10-member family returned to the marshlands after Hussein's government was toppled three years ago. However, Muhsin stayed behind in Basra -- Iraq's second largest city, 550 km southeast of the capital Baghdad to work as a taxi driver.

© IRIN   [Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

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Albion Monitor   October 3, 2006   (

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