The U.S. invasion of Iraq will be debated for years to come as history sorts out its perceived accomplishments and disasters, but there is little disagreement over one positive by-product of the war: the opportunity to save the country's unique marshes.
Formerly recognized as one of the world's great wetland ecosystems, covering 12,000 square miles in southern Iraq and renowned for diverse plant and animal life, the marshes also provided sustenance to the traditional Ma'dan people (also known as Marsh Arabs) before Saddam Hussein drained the region after the first Gulf War as a political punishment of the Ma'dan. While some of the damage may be irreversible, environmentalists now believe the marshes can be at least partly restored.
'There's a sense it will take a tremendous amount of effort, but it's not impossible,' Chris Lagan of the World Resources Institute told the San Francisco Chronicle (April 7, 2003). The primary challenge involves filling the marshes at a time when Iraq's water reserves are perilously low. Still, Lagan is optimistic, noting that the project could be 'the greatest single wetland restoration in the history of the world.'
While environmental restoration in Iraq is surely good news, equally inspiring efforts are under way in other battle-scarred countries. In Afghan-istan, environmental efforts are focusing not on a particular habitat but on reviving sustainable farming techniques. 'Before the wars,' reports Rob Schultheis in Sierra (May/June 2003), 'Afghanistan was a triumph of human ingenuity in one of the harshest environments on Earth.' Windmills, terrace farming, irrigation tunnels, and solar-powered drying houses represent just a few of the Afghans' innovative techniques for desert living. Unfortunately, decades of fighting reduced many of these simple yet innovative systems to rubble.
Small-scale community-based restoration efforts are sprouting all over the country. The Afghans' 'intimate knowledge of their uncompromising homeland and their passionate love for it' will ensure that these efforts succeed, Schultheis writes.
War also plays a role in restoration efforts on the Korean peninsula, in an area preserved, not destroyed, by war. The debate here revolves around the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), initially a barren buffer between the north and south that, left alone for 50 years, has become a teeming wildlife refuge.
South Korean native and Penn State University scientist Ke Chung Kim is spearheading a project to keep the refuge intact despite proposed rail lines and highways through the DMZ that could threaten the sanctuary's existence. As reported in Kyoto Journal (#53), Kim is a leader in the fight to protect this unique habitat, a crusade that he believes 'may yet help bring about lasting peace, reunification, and the revivification of Korea's degraded ecosystem.'
More than just a silver lining to the difficult aftermath of war, these projects offer lessons in sustainable development for the rest of the world.