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Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.
In 2003, when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed, many of the Ma'dan people returned to their homes and livelihoods, breaking open earthen dams and reflooding the marshes. Scientists feared that only 15 to 20 percent of the land would come back to life: The dried, cracked soil was full of salts, poisons and pollutants and consistent freshwater supplies remained in question.
Surprisingly, the marshes responded much better than expected. Heavy rains brought more water than was predicted: By the end of 2006, about 50 percent of the original wetlands showed signs of recovery. The water brought with it plant seeds, insect larvae and fish, encouraging birds to return as well.
Many of the Mesopotamian marshes have responded well to reflooding: Some wildlife has returned and plants in certain areas are flourishing. But problems remain. Freshwater supplies are limited, toxins in the soil may affect vegetation growth and potential future oil exploration in the marshes may disrupt the fragile ecosystem even further.
Nearly three dozen major dams in Iran, Syria, Turkey and upriver in Iraq siphon off water before it reaches the marshes. Most are massive, including the Atatürk Dam in Turkey. Dozens more such dams are planned or are under construction. As fresh water becomes even scarcer, what will become of the marshes?
The marshlands are a birder's paradise and are home to several species found nowhere else, including the Basra reed warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) and the Iraq babbler (Turdoides altirostris).