Fifteen years after nearly being annihilated by Saddam Hussein, almost half of Iraq’s fabled marshlands of Mesopotamia, considered by some to be the original Garden of Eden, have regained their 1970s extent, thanks to a multi-million dollar programme managed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Satellite images and analysis released by UNEP today showed that almost 50 per cent of the total area, one of the world’s largest wetland ecosystems, had been re-flooded with seasonal fluctuations, in sharp contrast to agency images in 2001 that revealed that 90 per cent of the Marshlands had already been lost.They were ravaged by a vast drainage operation carried out by Mr. Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War in one of Iraq’s major environmental and humanitarian disasters, with the desertification of millennia-old wetlands, displacement of much of the indigenous population and destruction of a unique cultural heritage.Once totalling almost 9,000 square kilometres, the Marshlands dwindled to just 760 square kilometres in 2002 and experts feared they could disappear entirely by 2008.As the regime fell in 2003, people began to open floodgates and break down the embankments that had been built to drain the Marshlands. Re-flooding has since occurred in some, but not all, areas. The rehabilitation project – Support for Environmental Management of the Iraqi Marshlands – which includes a series of local community-led campaigns, is funded by Japan and managed by UNEP.Up to 22,000 people living in the area are now getting access to safe drinking water and 300 Iraqis have been trained in marshland management techniques and policies, UNEP said today. The programme aims eventually to provide clean water for up to 100,000.The results of the project’s first phase will be presented to a meeting of high-level Iraqi officials, local community leaders and international donors in Kyoto, Japan, tomorrow.By the middle of 2006, 23 kilometres of water distribution pipes and 86 common distribution taps had been installed. A sanitation system pilot project is being implemented in the community of Al-Chibayish where inhabitants are facing health hazards from discharges of untreated wastewater to a nearby canal.“The key to the success of this project has been the solid cooperation with Ministries of Environment and Municipalities and Public Works, southern Governorates, local communities, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and dedication of many Iraqis,” Per Bakken, Director of the UNEP International Environmental Technology Centre said.