Free-market Environmentalism And The Restoration Of Mesopotamian Marshes

Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for posting on this San Francisco Chronicle article on Iraq’s wetlands. The article explains how Saddam Hussein’s regime led to the destruction of wetlands that have been a source of habitat, shelter and food for millennia:

Located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers near Basra, this vast watery substrate sprawled over 20,000 square kilometers, providing sustenance and shelter for a wide array of wildlife. They were also home to 200,000 “ma’dan,” or marsh Arabs, a group of hunters and fishermen who trace their habitation of the region back five millennia.

The marsh Arabs lived in singular harmony with their watery environment, building elegant boats and elaborate houses out of reeds.

But Hussein considered the swamps a haven for Shiite opponents of his regime. So in the mid-1990s, he drained the marshes, broadcast pesticides to kill the fish and wildlife, and attacked the villages of the ma’dan. Today, the once verdant network of reed beds and waterways is mostly a sere and lifeless plain.

This is a really uplifting story about the plans to enable the area to regenerate, spurred on largely by scientists and a community of marsh Arabs who relocated to San Diego. I was particularly struck by the emphasis on the economic importance of the regeneration:

While the marshes were a stunning ecological jewel, a repository of rare and endangered animals, Crisman said the key to resurrecting them is to emphasize their economic importance.

“The marshes were a critical component for the fisheries and water quality of the entire Persian Gulf,” Crisman said. “Marshes act as filters and transport systems — on one hand, turning contaminants into organic matter that fish, shrimp and other commercially important species can use, and on the other, dispersing that organic manner into surrounding aquatic systems.”

Otters and the rest of the wildlife, Crisman said, “are incredibly important, but you won’t necessarily be able to sell them to the World Bank. The World Bank does understand robust commercial fisheries, however.”

The critical issue for restoration advocates, said Crisman, is to find the point where a revived marsh can be truly self-sustaining, from both the ecological and economic perspectives.