Late last month, the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved the nation’s first national park: the Mesopotamian marshes, which some scholars believe were the site of the historical Garden of Eden. The establishment of the park is a major milestone for a nation still plagued by violence with the park itself linked to the ravages of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Portions of the marshes were drained beginning in the 1950s for agriculture and oil, however Saddam Hussein drained the vast majority of the marshes in order to evict the Ma’dan Marsh Arab people that had depended on the wetlands for their livelihoods for thousands of years. By the time Saddam fell only around 8 percent of the marshes remained.
The efforts to restore the marshes were spearheaded by Azzam Alwash, founder of the NGO Nature Iraq. Alwash left Iraq for the U.S. during the rule of Saddam Hussein, but returned 2003 after Hussein’s regime was toppled. He spent the next ten works working tirelessly to restore the drained marshlands and has since been given the Goldman Prize for his environmental work (often described as the ‘Green Oscar’).
“With this action, Iraq has acted to preserve the cradle of civilization,” said Alwash. “It is now the duty of the world to help Iraq maintain these wetlands for the future generations by helping Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran to reach an equitable agreement on the sharing of the waters in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates.”
The marshes are home to dozens of bird species and were once was a major stopover for migrating birds. While some of the area has recovered completely, other parts are suffering from drought and dam projects in other countries.
“Originally there would have been 70-120 million cubic meters of water flowing through the marshes a year. Today it is just 60m. But we think [as more dams are built and water is siphoned off upstream in cities] that eventually it will be around 40m cu meters. The water flow is progressively getting worse and there has been no flood since Syria and Turkey built their dams,” Alwash told the Guardian earlier this year. “If we do nothing, then agriculture will die in the land where it was born within 25 years.”
Marsh Arabs poling a traditional mashoof in the marshes of southern Iraq. Photograph slightly enhanced by contributor. April 2003. Photo by: Hassan Janali, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
(04/16/2013) The vast Mesoptomian marshes in southern Iraq were said to be the site of the original Garden of Eden. On their fringes have risen and fallen 12,000 years of Sumerian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Persian and Arab civilizations. Organized farming is thought to have begun here, as did the first cities and writing. In legend, Gilgamesh fell asleep on the water side and let slip from his fingers the plant of eternal youth. Abraham was said to have been born here and explorers like Sir Wilfred Thesiger made their name here.
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