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Resurrecting Eden: How Iraq’s marshlands are coming back

Iraq’s southern marshlands, home of the Marsh Arab people, were once famous for their quiet waterways, wooden boats, reed homes, diversity of fish and flocks of migratory birds. Many biblical scholars believe the marshlands could be the site of the Garden of Eden.

“In 1991, shortly after the first Persian Gulf war ended, Saddam Hussein’s government, angered by Marsh Arab participation in the southern uprising against his rule, launched an assault on the southern wetlands and the nearly 300,000 Marsh Arabs, known as Ma’adan, who call the region home,” Afshin Molavi wrote for National Geographic News in 2003.

“The assault included burning villages, summary executions and ‘disappearances,’ and a multi-year, sophisticated campaign of water diversion and marsh drainage that has reduced roughly 93 percent of the marshes to dry, salt-encrusted wasteland.”

A report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2001 said that satellite evidence showed the wetland complex, “a biodiversity center of global importance” that had once covered an area of 5,800 to 7,700 square miles (15,000 to 20,000 square kilometers), had shrunk to a 386-square-mile (1,000-square-kilometer) marsh straddling the Iran-Iraq border.

“UNEP described it as one of the worst environmental disasters in history, ranking it with the desiccation of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforests,” Molavi reported.

In the ensuing seven years I have often wondered about this place. During the long war we seldom heard anything about it. We are about to find out. 

Earlier this year a CBS 60 Minutes team traveled to the marshlands of southern Iraq.

“Our story takes viewers into a part of Iraq that few Westerners have ever seen before and shows how the region is coming back to life since Saddam fell in 2003,” says Jenny Dubin, producer of the piece for 60 Minutes.

Dubin shared this clip of the show, which airs Sunday, November 15th (7pm Eastern/6pm Central) on CBS.


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