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THE "Garden of Eden" has been saved, even as chaos grows all around. Last week, amid a wave of bombings on the streets of Baghdad, Iraq's Council of Ministers found time to approve the creation of the country's first national park – the centerpiece of a remarkable restoration of the Mesopotamian marshes in the south of the country.


This vast wetland of reed beds and waterways, home of the Ma'dan Marsh Arabs, is widely held to be the home of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, the paradise where Adam and Eve were created and from which they were subsequently expelled.


After the Gulf war in 1991, Iraq's president, Saddam Hussain, used dykes, sluices and diversions to cut off the country's two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. This drained 93% of marshes, largely obliterating the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East.


The purpose was to expel the rebellious Ma'dan, but in the end, it sped Saddam's downfall in 2003. Invading US tanks were able to drive north over the desert he had created and enter Baghdad far more easily. The Ma'dan later returned and broke the dykes. Water returned to some areas, as did the reed beds that sustained the bird life and water buffalo.
Conservationists have been amazed that, despite the disappearance for many years of most of the marsh, every species survived. All 278 recorded bird species remain, including the endemic Basra reed warbler and Iraq babbler. "They had hung on in small spots. When the water spread again, so did the birds," says Richard Porter of Bird life International. "It shows how resilient nature can be, and gives hope that other lost wetlands can be restored."
But it's not quite paradise regained. "While some patches returned, others did not," says Mudhafar Salim, chief ornithologist for Nature Iraq, the NGO that led the campaign for the park’s establishment.


The main issue now is the hydro-politics of the region. Syria, Turkey and Iran, Iraq's upstream neighbors, are increasingly restricting the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates. In response, Nature Iraq has persuaded the Iraqi government to construct an embankment to enable water flow in the Euphrates to be diverted onto the marshes in spring, recreating the strong "pulse" of water that is essential to its ecological cycles. Last year, 76 per cent of the potentially restorable marshland flooded.


"Declaring a park isn't just a bit of paper," says Nature Iraq's founder, engineer Azzam Alwash. "It will mean we can reserve a percentage of the water from the rivers for the marshes."
Salim adds: "Having a stable share of the water should allow the number of birds and other creatures to reach levels even greater than in the 1970s."


But in the long run, the marshes can only be protected if there is an international agreement on water-sharing, Alwash says. And managing the park itself will require money. He hopes tourists will pay, though they are unlikely to be flooding in just yet.


Fred Pearce

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