Introduction The Marshes of the lower Tigris and Euphrates riparian system have attracted substantial attention in recent years, particularly since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Persistent and pervasive desiccation of the wetlands and emigration by former inhabitants led to a process labelled as ‘one of the greatest ecological crimes of the 20th century’. In response an international coalition of ecologists, engineers, national governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has formed with the explicit goal of restoring the ecology and culture of the Marshes (Twair 2003). The United Nations has committed to restoration, offering expertise and multiple forms of capital, while Iraq has formed bilateral restoration ties with Canada, Ireland, Italy and Japan. Restoration of the Marshes, in sum, has become a project of global interest. This chapter critically interrogates the emerging process to restore the Marshes. It pays particular attention to the interrelated concepts of ‘destruction’ and ‘restoration’. Specifically, the chapter seeks to understand how certain oversimplified narratives of destruction legitimize intervention in the shape of restoration. A better understanding of how environmental change is conceptualized, how such understandings as well as the direction of restoration are shaped by the security concerns of regional and international powers, and how the communities that depend on the water resources that feed and comprise the Marshes will be affected have relevance beyond the Iraqi context. Specifically, the chapter seeks to engage with three areas of academic and policy debates in environmental security, sustainable rural development and water scarcity. First, the chapter demonstrates how the larger geopolitical climate in the Middle East has set the tone and direction of the restoration efforts of the Marshes. While it is not entirely possible to claim that the Marshes had not been an object of international interest before the recent occupation of Iraq by US-led forces (Adriansen 2004), it is evident that the designs of the United States on Iraq and the larger area were directly related the emergence of restoration as a legitimate policy goal. Directly following from this point, the second and arguably the most significant contribution the chapter makes concerns the politicization of the project of restoration. In so doing, it is argued that restoration, defined
as ‘returning the system to a close approximation of the predisturbance ecosystem’ (NRC 1992: 293), is inherently political, guided by selective interpretations of past ecological characteristics and various political, economic and geographical processes that resulted in environmental change. The constellation of actors that came together to design and execute the project have adapted an approach that is redolent with the discourse of ‘liberation’. Thus the attempt to create ‘New Eden’ (Iraq 2006) as the leading organization involved in the project is called can be accurately understood not merely as a scientific undertaking but as part of ongoing political economic transition in the Middle East. Lessons learned from the Marshes will have resonance for the ongoing efforts in Central Asia for the restoration of the Aral Sea (Weinthal 2002). Much like the Marshes, the Aral Sea has become an international emblem of brazen policies that wreaked havoc on a precious ecosystem on which many based their livelihoods (see also Chapters 5, 9 and 12, this volume). Third, the interrelation between the changing waterscape of the Marshes and agricultural development can help broaden the study of agrarian development in reclaimed or restored landscapes, which remains surprisingly weak. A number of developmental states are currently manipulating arid landscapes with a view to opening them up for intensive agriculture, such as the ‘Great Valley Development Project’ in Egypt, the ‘Southeastern Anatolia Project’ in Turkey and the ‘Develop the Great Northwest’ programme in China (Nielsen and Adriansen 2005; Çarkoğlu and Eder 2005; Becquelin 2000; Spoor and Shi 2008). The discussion of how ecosystem transformation is a profoundly complex process with far-reaching political, economic, social and cultural implications is of direct relevance to these ongoing attempts at reclamation as well.