6 Sep 2008

World Heritage plan for Iraq marshlands

10:49 am on 6 September 2008

The United Nations has launched an initiative to have the marshlands of southern Iraq listed as a world heritage site.

The ancient wetlands, believed by some to be the Biblical Garden of Eden, were drained and virtually destroyed in the 1990s by Saddam Hussein's government.

More than half of the area has been restored in a UN project over the past four years.

Iraqi's Environment Minister Narmin Othman has welcomed the plans.

She says the marshlands and centuries-old culture of the Marsh Arabs were in danger of disappearing in an ecological and human tragedy.

Fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Marshlands are spawning grounds for Gulf fisheries and home to rare bird species like the Sacred Ibis. They also provide a resting spot for thousands of wildfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa.

The Marsh Arabs have lived there for thousands of years but Saddam Hussein accused them of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran and ordered their homeland to be dammed and drained.

Wildlife-rich wetlands that covered 9,000 square km in the early 1970s had dwindled to just 760 square km by 2002. Experts said the marshes might be lost completely within five years unless urgent action was taken.

After Saddam's downfall locals wrecked many of the dams to let the water rush back in and a $US14 million UN Environment Programme restoration project prompted the return of thousands of birds and fish.

That included providing safe drinking water to residents, planting reeds to filter pollution and sewage, and the introduction of renewable energy schemes like solar power.

The Iraqi government says more than half the original wetlands have now been restored, and UNEP said the operation provides a blueprint for many other damaged ecologically important wetland systems around the world.

The organisation said the soonest Iraq could realistically put its case to the World Heritage Committee for the site to be listed was 2010