Tuesday, July 29, 2003

QURNAH, Iraq — Of all Saddam Hussein’s crimes, the most enduring may be the salt-encrusted moonscape that was once Eden, where punishment by water diversion has put to death an ancient way of life.

He not only killed many thousands by artillery shelling, fire-bombing reed hamlets or summary execution to quell rebellion after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, but dried up the heart of the Fertile Crescent.

Satellite photos and up-close inspection reveal an ecological calamity along the Tigris and Euphrates that scientists say is matched in scale only by the deforestation of Amazonia and the drying of the Aral Sea.

And now, environmental specialists say, unless massive resources are put urgently to work to reverse the damage Saddam caused, the cradle of civilization will be barren desert forever.

As a mocking symbol, a dead tree stands amid dusty trash by an abandoned hotel in Qurnah, where the rivers meet. Though probably less than a few centuries old, Iraqis insist it is Adam’s apple tree.

Angered by the 1991 uprising and eager to remove sanctuary, Saddam ordered a new river dug between the Tigris and Euphrates. This change withered lush marshes where the Madan — the Marsh Arabs — thrived for 5,000 years.

Then he be-gan a systematic purge. Troops set fire to bulrushes, poisoned some remaining watercourses, and lobbed mortar shells into recalcitrant settlements. By some estimates, up to a fifth of the half-million Madan died, but such figures are impossible to confirm. Almost all families fled their reed homes.

If no one can calculate the human cost, Marsh Arabs see the damage daily. Children die young from diseases that thrive in fetid channels where even dwindling herds of water buffalo won’t drink.

“We feel like we have lost our lives,” said Khassum al-Hamdani as he guided a visitor across the squandered paradise. “If something is not done soon, we will die along with the marshes.”

About 40,000 Madan are in Iranian refugee camps. More cling miserably to dried-out marsh. Mr. Hamdani has a job in nearby Basra, but most others float about Iraq, destitute and unhappy.

“This was beautiful, so beautiful,” he said, perched in a canoe in an isolated patch of water barely deep enough to bathe a buffalo.

Thick marshland teeming with life once covered 8,000 square miles — the size of Massachusetts. Now 97 percent of the main marshes are dry. Less than a third is left of eastern marshes that reach into Iran.

Rice paddies and fishing grounds are gone. The gray wolf, the smooth-coated otter, the honey badger have died out. Some birds are now extinct, and global migrations have been disrupted. When wind blows, blinding sandstorms strip off what topsoil remains.

The last holdout is a patch of fertile marsh with towering qasab reeds that straddles the Iraq-Iran border. It is called Majnoon, “crazy” in Arabic, because the oil beneath it often gurgles.

The marshes suffered severely during Saddam’s 1980-88 war with Iran. He drained wide areas to build roads. In places, he electrified the water, killing marsh life along with Iranian soldiers.

But the death knell came in 1992. Despite a war-shattered country that needed rebuilding elsewhere, crews worked round-the-clock for nine months to dig the 350-mile-long Saddam River to drain the marshes.

Near Ad Deyr, a scruffy settlement halfway between Basra and Qurnah, desperate Madan are trying to reclaim marsh on their own. They cut gashes into dikes that Saddam built as water-diverting causeways and access roads for military patrols. But the water is too salty, and it amounts to droplets in the desert.

“You can’t simply add water and bring it all back again,” said Christian Lambrechts, a U.N. Environment Program specialist who is helping assess the damage in southern Iraq.

He said engineers must work from carefully studied models to reflood the marshes, restoring balances of salt and plant life. It would be a hugely expensive endeavor at a time when a rebuilding Iraq has other priorities.

The U.S. government has pledged help, Britain has expressed interest and international agencies, and humanitarian groups are conferring on how to help.

But diplomats and scientists must find some common ground on sharing the ancient river system, which starts in Turkey and flows through Syria and Iran as well as Iraq.

Saddam’s revenge was only the coup de grace of a dam-building process that began a half century ago. It coincided with Turkey’s huge Southeast Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish initials, GAP.

The Ataturk Dam, completed in 1992, is big enough by itself to halt the Euphrates. Altogether, GAP’s 22 dams could store five times the Euphrates’ annual flow and twice the flow of the Tigris.

Even before the September 11, 2001, attacks raised tensions in the Middle East, a Turkish Cabinet minister dismissed Iraqi objections to a diminished flow of the two vital rivers. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he chuckled and summed up his attitude: Let them drink their oil.

“Technically, you could probably restore much of the marshes if someone made the commitment to do it,” said Robert Giegengack, a University of Pennsylvania hydrologist with long Middle East experience. “But you can’t turn money into water.”

He said that if dams in Turkey reduce river flow by more than 50 percent, as some estimates predict, reclamation will be all but impossible.

Beyond dramatic satellite photos comparing the marshes of 1973 and 2000, little hard data is available on the damage done. Saddam closely guarded such information. And ecology was hardly his priority.

“We’ve had no new equipment since 1985,” said Samir Abdullah, head of biology at the University of Basra, which has no environmental-science department. “Field research was out of the question.”

But the effects of Saddam’s depredations are plain, he said. Basra often vanishes under dust storms from the north. Temperatures have risen. Plant and animals species are changing rapidly.

Abdul Nabi al-Ghadban, chief environmentalist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, calls the changes catastrophic, not only for the marshes but for the surrounding desert and the Persian Gulf.

He said efforts must be made to bring back the marshes, not only for the Madan and Mesopotamia but the entire region.

Already, he said, northern Gulf ecosystems have been seriously altered.

Changes in salt levels have driven off some fish species, and salt is advancing up the Shatt-al-Arab, the rivers’ outlet to the Gulf. Shrimp beds and marine plant life, which rebounded from calamitous damage during the 1991 Gulf war, are in danger again.

Still, Mr. al-Ghadban said, for much of the marshes it may be too late. “Ecological damage can only go so far, and then it is irreversible.”

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