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Today, 60 percent of the marshes have been restored, thanks to the “New Eden Team” headed by NI and Iraqi and Italian experts. They have recently released their “New Eden Master Plan for Integrated Water Resource Management in the Marshland Areas.” Sponsored by the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land, and Sea, it represents over two years of work by NI, Italian partners, and various Iraqi ministries. The plan will help Iraqi legislators plan and addresses issues such as improving the efficiency of water use, restoring the environment, regional economic development, flood control, and community building for returning refugees and displaced peoples.
Working under self-stated goals such as improving the capacity of Iraq’s institutions to protect its environment; developing a database of environmental conditions and trends focusing on water resources, ecology, and biodiversity; promoting the sustainable use of Iraq’s environment and resources; respecting and balancing the traditional use of the environment by indigenous inhabitants, and preserving wildlife and biodiversity, NI oversees projects that include monthly monitoring of water flows in and out of the marsh rivers and a census of the number and distribution of water buff alos in the marshes of the three southern governorates. NI has conducted biannual summer/winter surveys of biological and physical variables such as water quality, macrophytes, phytoplankton, zooplankton, macrobenthos, marine life, and birds at 62 sites within six governorates in southern Iraq.
With offices in Basra and Baghdad, NI was encouraged by its successes to open an office in Sulaimaniyeh earlier this year and, at the request of the Iraqi Ministry of Environment, to extend these seasonal surveys to the Kurdish regions using funds provided by the Italian government. Anna invited me to stay at the newly opened office/house of Nature Iraq in Sulaimaniyeh, and I arrived in time to participate in the start of the first six-week-long survey, which will encompass 30 sites and involve extensive animal and plant surveys and water-quality monitoring at selected dry and wet sites, including a few located on the Darbandikhan and Dokan reservoirs.
After sleeping a good part of my first day in-country and making introductions to the 13-plus members of the survey team, we all went off early the next morning to the second choice site of the day: Biyari, a small mountain village on the border with Iran that has a centuries-old stream emanating from an underground spring. The original survey site we were supposed to go to on the Iran/Iraq border was closed off to us by the military due to insurgent activity.
The Biyari site was wooded and cooler than Sulaimaniyeh. Seated on blankets under the spacious arms of the trees, families were gathered to picnic and beat the summer heat.
A mixture of Kurds and Shiite and Sunni Arabs, the NI’s survey team of biologists, chemists, and geologists stands in stark contrast to the brain drain that is decimating central and southern Iraq. A few of the Shiite and Sunni staff are among the displaced, having had to flee their places of origin, and some have family who have scattered to Jordan, Syria, Switzerland, and farther. One man has yet to see his 10-month-old grandson because the child is in Syria.
The team quickly scattered and went to work. Some measured water quality, sediments and benthic invertebrates, while others took to the hills to photograph the flora and fauna. I was free to mingle with the families who beckoned to me to join them, drink tea, and take their photograph. One family up the hill had brought a sound system, and Kurdish music flowed among the trees. A rock wall acting as a buffer between the picnic area and stream housed colonies of hundreds of leaf-camouflaged moths with orange underbellies. Although we were so close to the border we could have been technically in Iran, I had difficulty believing this
was Iraq. Wherever we were, there were no signs of war. However, as we readied to leave a few hours later, a woman preaching Islamist dogma to a large group of women and girls, all apparently enraptured by her speech, was pointed out to me. It was not rapture but brainwashing, the Kurdish members of the NI team informed me. The Kurds openly despise the Islamists. I was told that this woman and her disciples were most likely members of Ansar al Islam—a radical splinter group of Islamist Sunni Kurds that promotes jihad and is known for using suicide bombers against Kurdish targets. “Ansar al Islam was kicked out by the Peshmerga and the US,” I was informed by our extraordinarily observant and intelligent young
Kurdish biologist/fixer. “They go in and out of Iran at will.”