A multi-million dollar project to restore the environment and provide clean drinking water in the southern marshlands of Iraq was announced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) this week.
"It is planned to get the project underway in September with some initial tests and sampling of water quality," Nick Nuttall, head of media services for UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, told IRIN.
According to the UNEP, 90 percent of the marshlands, believed to be the historical site of the Garden of Eden, were destroyed following a massive campaign by the former regime of Saddam Hussein to drain them in order to deprive the opposition Shi'ite forces of safe havens, following an uprising against Hussein in the early 1990s.
During that period blockades were built to stop water from re-entering the area, causing massive loss of livelihoods for thousands of Marsh Arabs living in the wetlands.
In 2003, studies showed that an additional three percent or 325 square km had been lost. Experts feared that the entire wetlands, home to a 5,000 year-old civilisation and heirs of the Babylonians and Sumerians, could disappear entirely by 2008.
Following the fall of Saddam, local people broke down the barriers reflooding around a fifth or some 3,000 square km of the marshes.
But conditions for some 80,000 people in the area remain poor, according to UNEP and a recent UN survey revealed that marsh Arabs were collecting water for their use directly from the marshlands.
"It is hard to be precise, but recent studies indicate that sewage and untreated water is being discharged directly into the streets from where it runs into streams and into the marshlands. So, conditions are not good to put it mildly," Nuttall explained.
The project, funded by the Japanese government, will ensure that drinking water and sanitation systems are installed in key communities along with pilot wetlands restoration for the benefit of people and wildlife.
Nuttall said the health situation was of particular concern: "There certainly are fears of water-borne diseases such as cholera breaking out."
Under the US $11 million dollar project, reed beds and other greenery, which act as a natural water-filtration system, would be restored, benefiting not only local residents, but also providing wildlife a new habitat.
Meanwhile, in an effort to improve communications, a Marshland Information Network, an Internet-based system, will be established, offering the latest on the restoration process, as well as public awareness schemes, the UNEP statement said.
The project also includes training in wetland management for Iraqi officials. With a number of NGOs and organisations also working on improving the situation for the marsh people, the UNEP aims to coordinate efforts.
But with no real way of knowing how much of the marshlands can be recovered, the UN agency stresses that the future of the wetlands lies in the development of a master plan covering regional cooperation with countries upstream and downstream in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions