War-torn Iraq announces its first National Park, featuring the restoration of the once-famous Mesopotamian marshes, third largest wetland in the world and nearly obliterated by Saddam Hussain in the 1990s.
Many believe that this area of Iraq was, in fact, the biblical, ‘Garden of Eden’. A wide variety of birds flourished amid a sprawling wetland ecosystem surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the ancestral homeland of the Ma’dan people.
Unfortunately for the wetlands, Saddam Hussain wanted to push the rebellious Ma’dan out of Iraq, so in 1991 he drained the marshlands with a series of dykes, diverting the rivers’ flow. About 93% of the wetlands became dry wastelands, forcing the Ma’dan out.
Ironically, the newly formed desert area allowed USA tanks to quickly penetrate Iraq in the 2003 invasion. As Saddam’s armies were pushed back, the Ma’dan returned, broke the dykes, and the rivers once more filled the wetlands.
Many expected that the diversity of birds would be greatly depleted, but the ensuing years have seen all previously recorded 278 bird species rediscovered as the marshes re-establish. Scientists were especially delighted to find that 2 endemic species, the Basra reed warbler and the Iraq babbler have showed such resilience, surviving in small isolated pockets.
Water pressures remain however, with Iraq’s upstream neighbours Iran, Turkey and Syria increasing how much water they take from the rivers. Nature Iraq reports that part of the new National Park establishment will be a special spring flow to flood the wetlands but the park’s long-term survival will depend on establishing water-sharing agreements that maintain crucial flow.
It is hoped that the political situation in Iraq will improve, allowing tourists to return and that their visits will help fund the park.
Azzam Alwash, founder and President of the Board of Directors of Nature Iraq said of the recent declaration: “With this action, Iraq has acted to preserve the cradle of civilization. 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.”