Regaining Paradise

"As a kid, I would study maps -- memorize maps and places around the world," said Dr. Thomas Crisman, director of the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands at the University of Florida (UF).

After his parents gave him a fishbowl with a bottom full of marbles and a goldfish to boot, he went after a bigger aquarium. He turned to the aquatic ecology of the world.

These days, Crisman is teaching about water ecology, traveling to learn about water ecology and doing research about water ecology.

The Nature of Wetlands' Functions
In the Journal of the International Association of Theoretical and Applied Limnology (December 2000), several scientists from UF, including Crisman, explained the creation of a stormwater ecological enhancement project, or SEEP.

This project recognized the similarity between stormwater basin functions and wetland functions. SEEP's goal was to better understand how to ecologically engineer stormwater basins to make up for lost wetland functions.

Such experience has expanded Crisman's understanding of the wetlands' function in landscapes and provides information on integrating wetland utility into other projects. Wetland functions include chemical, physical and biological ones, involving water storage, chemical adsorption, wildlife conservation and more.

Reclaiming Middle Eastern Marshlands
Most recently, Crisman's knowledge and passion have steered him to the technical advisory board for a project known as "Eden Again." Eden Again aims to restore the Middle Eastern Mesopotamian Marshlands ecosystem, as well as the native inhabitants, a people known as the Marsh Arabs.

Funded by an initial grant from the U.S. State Department, and with plans to seek further funding, Eden Again is overseen by the Iraq Foundation, an opposition group based in the United States.

"The challenge is different than anywhere else in the world," Crisman said. "There are a number of places in the world where people have restored ecosystems, but when you have to restore a culture at the same time, and a culture that depends on the ecosystem, now we have a totally different problem."

In 2001, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) issued an Early Warning and Assessment Technical Report titled "The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem." It reported that 85 percent of the original wetlands has disappeared since the 1970s. With satellite images, the United Nations found hard evidence that the land has been rapidly losing water.

According to UNEP, the marshlands previously totaled an area of 5,800 square miles to 7,700 square miles but now cover less than 580 square miles to 770 square miles. This year, UNEP announced at the 2003 World Water Forum that even more of the marshes have disappeared -- 50 percent of what was left in 2000 has been lost. Also known as the Fertile Crescent, the area once comprised the largest wetland in the Middle East but is now mostly desert.

Located where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet in Iraq and extending into southwestern Iran, the marshes have been home to an indigenous people for thousands of years. Since the 1970s, upstream damming of the rivers and drainage schemes have left the marshes dry and forced most of the Marsh Arabs to relocate, UNEP reports. According to the Iraq Foundation, following the Gulf War of 1991, there has been a nearly complete desiccation of the marshes.

Crisman said one of the questions the advisory committee for Eden Again must face is: How little water is needed for the functioning of people and the functioning of an ecosystem? With limited water resources, the advisory board must decide what the minimal amount of water possible is necessary to reach the Eden Again goal, which is to restore the Mesopotamian Marshlands to the condition they were before 1990.

John Kiefer, an engineer and manager of environmental services at BCI Engineers and Scientists Inc. in Lakeland, Fla., believes that in order for successful restoration of the marshes and of the culture to take place, you have to figure out things like what water depths the Marsh Arabs prefer to fish in and what kind of vegetation they prefer.

"From an engineering standpoint, that drives how you look at hydrology and what techniques you put into place," Kiefer said.

The marshes provided a tremendous amount of protein in the form of fish that the Marsh Arabs would sell on the open market, Crisman said. "That's gone."

"The marsh also was an integrator of wastewater that would come down on a regional basis from Turkey, Syria, as well as within Iraq. It was the Mesopotamian kidney, if you want."

Crisman's research and experience as a subtropical freshwater ecologist across the map have taught him that restoration efforts should compare, contrast and fine-tune projects in light of experiences elsewhere. He calls this technique "experience transfer."

Kiefer agrees that comparing and contrasting wetland projects internationally can be very useful.

Helping Communities and Wetlands Thrive Together
For example, Kiefer said, "One thing that is environmentally different in developing countries is that the conservation ethic is different. People are worried about day-to-day existence, basic necessities, shelter and food. This is not an area where you can re-plumb like you're trying to re-plumb the Everglades."

When you are trying to recreate a landscape in a developing country, you have to build some utility into the landscape for the local population, Kiefer said. "What is sustainable for their use?" Kiefer said.

In order to learn how to best manage the marshes, there must be an understanding of the structure and function of the entire ecosystem, as well as how to best accommodate the Marsh Arabs.

Ecological engineering, or "green" engineering recognizes that people are part of the ecology, and the two activities can in fact be complimentary. According to Crisman, such a concept allows communities and wetlands to thrive. Crisman said there has been an attitude change toward ecology, since the first Earth Day in 1970. Initially, humans were considered a deterrent to conservation. Now, he said humans should be seen in the creation of conservation solutions.

"People are part of ecology," Crisman said. "Humans have economic and personal concerns, and nature has requirements."

He finds that multipurpose use of wetland ecosystems is a way to promote wetland conservation that also fits into the economic and social framework of a population.

"Ecosystems can serve multiple purposes," he said. "They can be extremely useful for performing human functions at the same time that they are performing natural functions."

Empowering people whose existence depends on sustainable utilization of the wetland resource is an effective model. Crisman found that people's place in wetland ecology is a key element in the long-term solution of ecosystem management.

"You have to let humans interact with the ecology. We've gone from a preservation attitude about ecosystems to a conservation attitude. Conservation means that you want to have some sort of long-term sustainability to that ecosystem, recognizing that humans are still going to interact with it," Crisman said.

Crisman is prepared to advise scientists and engineers in the Middle East for the project that will soon begin, now that the war in Iraq is over and restoration efforts have begun. His research in Florida, in the Brazilian Pantanal, in Greece and other areas have given him the means to apply his experience to the brand-new challenge of Eden Again.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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