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Birds And Buffalo Back But Iraqi Marshes Still Under Threat

Five surveys carried out in the past two and a half years by biologists from Nature Iraq and experts from Birdlife International showed that all bird species which traditionally inhabited the marshes are still around, albeit in smaller numbers. Water buffalo have also returned.
by Bryan Pearson
Baghdad (AFP) March 19, 2007
Basra reed warblers are again warbling and water buffalo wallowing in the Mesopotamian marshes, but a full recovery of the Iraq wetland drained by Saddam Hussein is still far from certain, experts say.

When the snows in the Kurdistan mountains begin melting in the next few weeks, unless the gushing waters can be fully harnessed some gains already made could be reversed, according to Iraqi civil engineer Azzam Alwash.

While many dams and canals ordered to be built by Saddam in 1993 have been destroyed, he said, large dams upstream both inside Iraq and in Turkey are preventing the water from arriving with the force needed to flush out the brackish water that accumulates in the summer months.

About 90 percent of the marshland in southern Iraq, which once covered an area of 20,000 square kilometres (8,000 square miles) and is fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was drained by Saddam to crush a local Shiite rebellion.

The half a million so-called Marsh Arabs living in an area considered by some to be the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden were forced to flee as the wetland quickly became a wasteland.

But with the fall of Saddam after the US-led invasion in March 2003, Iraqi farmers destroyed some of the dams and canals that had diverted the waters, allowing the area to be reflooded and the Marsh Arabs to return.

According to Alwash, who with a team of scientists has monitored the recovery of the marshes for the past three years, around 60 percent of the wetland has now been reflooded, thanks also in part to projects overseen by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

He added that this does not mean 60 percent of the wetland has actually recovered, however.

"We can say that only around 45 percent of the marsh is showing signs of a robust recovery," the engineer, head of non-governmental organisation Nature Iraq, told AFP by telephone from Amman in Jordan.

He said his team of scientists had concluded that the main factor preventing a full recovery is the upstream dams.

"Before the damned dams, Iraq used to get approximately 100 billion cubic metres (3,500 trillion cubic feet) of water per annum, 60 percent of which arrived during the snow melt," Alwash said.

"The water comes into southern Iraq, which is flat, and results in flooding of the area -- hence the marshes," he added.

"The marshes need this injection of water during the spring, just as the reeds come out of winter hibernation, and fish begin spawning and the bird migration occurs."

Alwash wants a system installed that will create a "mechanical flooding action" to make up for the usual rush of fresh water from the mountains. But the task is daunting because of the dangers of working in the lawless area and a lack of resources.

The Iraqi government favours the idea, he said, but most of its resources are going towards trying to stabilise a country wracked by sectarian strife.

"The government is full of good intentions, but it has other things on its mind," said Alwash.

The signs of recovery are there, however.

Five surveys carried out in the past two and a half years by biologists from Nature Iraq and experts from Birdlife International showed that all bird species which traditionally inhabited the marshes are still around, albeit in smaller numbers.

Water buffalo have also returned, said Alwash.

"At the last count there were 6,000 water buffalo. In the past we saw very few."

Not only are the animals powerful beasts of burden, he said, they also supply milk and meat -- crucial in helping the 5,000-year-old Marsh Arab culture to recover.

According to Middle East bird expert Richard Porter, who is helping Alwash and his team of biologists sift through the data recorded in their two summer and three winter surveys, the signs for birdlife recovery are positive.

Porter, Middle East adviser to Birdlife International, told AFP by telephone from Cambridge in England that the teams found at least 160 bird species.

Of these, 65 species are of "conservation concern," he said.

"They are not doing terribly well either in Europe or Asia or the Middle East," said Porter, co-author of the book "Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq."

"Seven of the species they have discovered are globally threatened -- three of these are endemic birds, the Basra reed warbler, the Iraq babbler and the grey hypocolius," he said.

"The reed warbler was considered to be globally endangered -- but in the survey they found good populations, so we know that that bird is around in much bigger numbers than we previously thought," Porter added.

"No species of bird has been discovered to have become extinct in the marshes. Everything that has been found is very positive for conservation."

But Azzam Alwash is more cautious.

"The marshes are still under threat," he said. "We may yet lose species."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Washington (AFP) March 16, 2007
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