Duke ecologist finds devastation, hope in Iraqi marshes

DURHAM, N.C. -- An expedition by Duke University wetlands expert Curtis Richardson to evaluate damage to Iraq's storied Mesopotamian Marshlands revealed an environmental disaster of vast proportions. However, he also found the potential for restoring a significant portion of the marshes and with them the Marsh Arab culture.

On his June 16-26 trip, he encountered dust-bowl-level desiccation within the former wetlands, a destroyed date palm industry, a drinking water crisis, wrecked laboratories, and a pressing need to train a new generation of environmental researchers. Richardson is director of the Duke Wetland Center and a professor of resources ecology in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. Richardson, the only university researcher on the trip, was joined by

  • Peter Reiss, an anthropologist from Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Md., who served as team leader
  • Azaam Alwash, a hydrologist and engineer with the Eden Again Project and Iraq Foundations, and

  • Doug Pool, an agronomist with the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Iraq Office.

Together, they are developing with Iraqi experts a plan to restore a portion of the marshlands, which some legends identify as the site of the Garden of Eden. The formerly pristine wetland ecosystem of more than 20,000 square kilometers has been reduced by 90 percent, he estimated, through a combination of upstream damming, protracted warfare, and deliberate draining. The draining was done by Saddam Hussein's government, both for land development and to suppress an indigenous 5,000-year old Marsh Arab culture that opposed his regime.

For Richardson and his colleagues who made the USAID-sponsored visit, there was potential danger starting with an early morning armed convey racing across the Iraqi border from Kuwait and continuing with his first night on the third floor of his hotel in Basra. "I was lying there hearing machine gun fire

Contact: Scottee Cantrell
Duke University

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