It is in this place, the southernmost tip of the ancient Fertile Crescent—where the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers divides and separates into a drainage basin made up of a multitude of small waterways before emptying into the Persian Gulf—that plans are being implemented to create Iraq’s first National Park in an area ravaged by the vengeful acts of Saddam Hussein, who during the closing decade of the 20th century aimed to destroy a 5,000-year-old culture. The proposed Mesopotamian Marshlands National Park will cover an area just under 350,000 acres and contain a core area of 59,000 acres. Known as the Eden Again Project and led by the Iraqi environmental group Nature Iraq, the project’s partners also include the Italian Ministry of the Environment, Land, and Sea, and Iraq’s Ministries of Environment, Water Resources and Municipalities and Public Works. The broad objectives of the national park aim to protect the environment, foster socio-economic development in the region, preserve its cultural heritage inclusive of restoring and protecting from further deterioration all identified archeological sites, and to guide the establishment of ecologic corridors within the marshes along with the creation of an appropriate marshland monitoring and management system.
Creating a national park is a heady goal for an organization that hires body guards to accompany their scientists as they work in the field doing surveys, collecting flora, fauna, and water-quality samples; and cataloging wildlife. And if creating Iraq’s first National Park during a time of war and occupation weren’t enough, discussions regarding the creation of a second National Park have recently begun in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, a more secure but equally environmentally devastated area thanks to the purposeful acts of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Although Iraq’s north and south are separated by its heavily populated central region, the lifeblood dispensed from the Tigris and Euphrates links the two regions. Fed by headwaters located in the mountains of Turkey, Iran and northern Iraq’s Kurdistan, the two main arteries flow south providing silt, clay, and all the nutrients necessary for the continual spawning of life.
It is this link that some feel will ultimately unite Iraq, if not from some open desire to become one indivisible nation, than at the very least because of an environmentally driven need—access to water.
“There are two places in Iraq—the high places in the north’s mountains and the southern marshlands—where you are speaking with God,” said Narmeen Othman, a Kurd who spent her youth as a Peshmerga, the Kurdish guerilla organization. As the Minister of Iraq’s newly formed Ministry of Environment, oversight of both projects fall to her. “When I was Peshmerga, alone in the mountains, I took my strength from nature, from the grasses and flowers and trees, from the waterfalls and rivers. The same pieces of water that come from our mountains, they end up in the marshes, and they are a gift given to Iraq.”