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Scientists find both damage and promise for renewal in devastated Iraqi marshlands

DURHAM, N.C. -- In the first analysis of the ecology of the storied Iraqi Mesopotamian marshes after the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein, scientists have found many problems, but also the promise of partial revitalization, should those problems be solved.

During his 24-year reign, Saddam decreed the extensive draining of the original 15,000-square-kilometer wetlands, in part to punish the Marsh Arabs who lived there and who opposed his rule. Adjoining nations also diverted some water further upstream.

In 2003 and 2004, an international group of wetlands experts led by Duke University ecologist Curtis Richardson was funded to conduct studies of the soils, water, plants and animals in the region.

Now, only 10 percent of the original marshes survived as "fully functioning wetlands" following extensive drainage and upstream agricultural irrigation on the Tigris and Euphrates during Saddam's rule, said a report authored by Richardson and four colleagues scheduled for publication in the Feb. 25 issue of the journal Science.

"This environmental disaster has been compared in scale to the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and to the deforestation of the Amazon," their report added. The Aral Sea, once the fourth biggest inland water body, is now mostly desert as a result of water diversions.

However, the authors also wrote that the remaining marshland could serve as a source for revitalization of the marsh ecology. "The high quality of water, the existing soil conditions and the presence of stocks of native species in some regions indicate that the restoration potential for a significant portion of the Mesopotamian marshes is high," said the report.

"The stakes are also high since the future of the 5,000-year-old Marsh Arab culture and the economic stability of large portions of southern Iraq are dependent on the success of this restoration effort," the report continued. The Marsh Arabs had been persecuted b
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Contact: Monte Basgall
monte.basgall@duke.edu
919-681-8057
Duke University
19-Feb-2005


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