Restoring the marshes of Eden

In one of the rare good news stories coming out of Iraq, the country's almost-decimated wetlands have begun rebounding under the efforts of local residents and the new government in Iraq, monitored by an international team of scientists.

Dr. Barry Warner, a University of Waterloo scientist who leads the Canadian contingent of the project, has been working with Iraqi scientist Dr. Majeed Rasheed Al-Hilli of the University of Baghdad to see how the plant communities in the Ahwar wetlands of southern Iraq changed under Saddam Hussein's rule.

Dr. Al-Hilli conducted the only large-scale study of Iraq's massive marshes in the 1970s, and his data provide a baseline from which scientists can begin to gauge future restoration efforts. The picture produced by this before and after method is shocking, given that it happened in just 10 to 20 years.

"We're talking about an area about the size of Lake Ontario that has been reduced to about a tenth of its original size," says Dr. Warner. "So, if you can imagine Lake Ontario disappearing, that's essentially what has happened to the marshes in southern Iraq."

The biologist, whose work is supported by Science and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC), will take part in a symposium on this topic at the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington D.C. on February 20.

Dr. Warner says the majority of the wetlands have become dry, salt-encrusted desert, as opposed to a vibrant marsh fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

"It was largely dominated by open water, and vegetated by plants like our common reed plant. You've probably seen these big, tall grass-like plants in ditches along the roadside here in Ontario. It's a form of that species, except that it's about three times that high," he says.

"So, it's a huge grassy marsh, with other plants such as water lilies and cattails. There were lots of fish and fish are very important to local people as a

Contact: Dr. Barry Warner
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

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