One of Saddam Hussein’s greatest acts of ecological destruction — the draining of the Mesopotamian marshes — has been reversed as birds and rivers return to the region. Saddam Hussein’s draining of the Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq — recorded as the Garden of Eden in the Bible — was one of the most infamous outrages of his regime, leaving a once-teeming river delta into a dry, salt-encrusted desert, emptied of insects, birds and the people who lived on them.

Nearly two decades later the area is buzzing and twittering with life again after local people and a new breed of Iraqi conservationists restored much of what was once the world’s third largest wetland to some of its former glory.

The story of this once almost impossible restoration is told in an exhibition of photographs that has opened in the UK. They show the huge expanses of reeds and open water where plants, insects and fish have returned, creating a vast feeding area for migrating and breeding birds, including the Sacred Ibis, Basrah Reed Warbler and Iraq Babbler, along with most of the world’s population of Marbled Teal ducks, bee-eaters and many more.

“We call them stopover sites, refuelling sites,” said Richard Porter, Middle East adviser to conservation group Birdlife International, who has helped train biologists and other experts for local partner Nature Iraq.

“They are as important as the breeding and over-wintering grounds for species.” The Mesopotamian marshes once sprawled across thousands of square kilometres of floodplain where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers divided into a network of tributaries meandering south to the Arabian Sea.

In the early 1990s, this way of life came to an abrupt end when Hussein ordered the marshes to be drained to punish the local population for an uprising after his failed invasion of Kuwait, a problem exacerbated by the continued construction of dams upstream.

He ordered the area to be hemmed in by constructing about 4,000km of earthen walls that towered up to 7m above the unbroken flat landscape.

The wetlands retreated to as little as 5-10% of their original size, according to a 2001 United Nations Environment Agency report. About half the original marshland has been restored — even more had been reinstated, but there was a setback last year because of a drought.

Nature Iraq has now drawn up a plan to cope with the diminishing water flows from dams upstream in Turkey by channelling irrigation water back into the rivers and building a barrage to retain melt-water from the mountains and create a “mechanical flood” of water to replicate the important pulses of freshwater that wash through the marshlands every spring.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010