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Eden in Iraq

Ecological and Cultural Restoration in the Mesopotamian Marshes

Professor Meridel Rubenstein, Professor Peer Sathikh, Dr Mark Nelson,

Dr Davide Tocchetto, and Dr Sander van der Leeuw

The Al-Asadi family in a new Garden of Eden, near El-Chibaish, Southern Iraq Marshes, 2011

EDEN IN IRAQ is a water remediation project in the wetlands of Southern Iraq, using environmental design and wastewater to make a restorative garden for health, cultural heritage, and environmental education. UNESCO’s recent designation of these Mesopotamian Marshes as a World Heritage Site will enable the needs and benefits of this ancient ecological and cultural jewel to be brought to the world’s stage.

In the early 1990’s, Saddam Hussein secretly drained the immense Southern Iraq wetlands, near the possible site of the historic Garden of Eden, to punish the Shi’a rebels hiding there. He turned it into a desert, murdering thousands of Marsh Arabs. Since Saddam’s demise in 2003, the surviving expelled Marsh Arabs have been returning to re-green and restore the marshes, with the help of the environmental NGO, NATURE IRAQ. With their return, serious sewage and health problems have ensued.

Left: Saygal was one of the largest marsh villages built Right: Saygal after 1993 half on water, half on dry land © 1977 Nik Wheeler

The Background

This 7,000 year old Mesopotamian culture has retained their traditional water-based way of life including their magnificent reed architecture, weavings, and water buffalo trade. Their architecture appears unchanged on cylinder seals and stelae dating over 5000 years old.

Left: Hassan With Doves at the Shatt Al-Arab. Right: Military Site on the Road to Eridu

• The Marsh Arabs cant inspire those countless refugees, afloat in Europe, to the possibility of returning home. They can be an inspiration to those most affected by the American-Iraqi war.
• In 2011, Nature Iraq NGO invited environmental engineer, Dr Mark Nelson and environmental artist, Professor Meridel Rubenstein, to create an ecological work that will transform human waste into a garden.
• Nature Iraq is an Iraqi non-governmental organization registered in Iraq and accredited to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). They work to protect, restore, and preserve Iraq’s natural environment and the rich cultural heritage it nourishes.
• The Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden Project was enthusiastically received and approved by local, provincial, and state environmental authorities.

New Mudhief, Nature Iraq Visitor Center, El Chibaish.

The Team 

In January 2013, through Rubenstein’s colleague and industrial designer at the School of Art, Design, and Media, Assistant Professor and Associate Chair, Peer Sathikh, we were awarded a Three-Year Tier 1 Research Grant by Nanyang Technological University – Singapore ($S90,000). We expanded our team, in addition to Peer Sathikh, to include Dr Davide Tocchetto, environmental engineer and agronomist from Treviso, Italy in research affiliation with Padova University and Dr Sander van der Leeuw, then Dean of the School of Sustainability in Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Professor of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Embroidered wedding blanket, Women’s Weaving Cooperative Nasiriyah, 2014.

We are designing the wastewater garden and cultural heritage site for the largest marsh town, El Chibaish, on a 20,000 sq. meters site that will support approximately 7,500 Marsh Arabs.

We are creating a constructed wetlands using…
• sewage from the town’s sewage collection plant
• local materials such as earthen brick, woven reed, and ceramic tile
• designs inspired by Marsh Arab embroidered wedding blanket patterns for planting design, Mesopotamian cylinder seal imagery for ceramic relief patterns, and the marsh reed architecture for shade structure and viewing towers
• imagery of ancient flora and fauna from Mesopotamia as well as those mentioned in the Bible and the Koran to create an image archive

Preliminary Garden Design

The Project so Far…

A syncretic blend of Islamic and Mesopotamian iconography is guiding our garden designs, and our discussions with communities we are addressing. We discuss principles of Islamic design as well as cultural memories, their family histories, the 1990’s exodus and return as well as restoration and development of local crafts.

Nature Iraq NGO Visitors Center, El Chibaish.

• With the Tier 1 Research Grant, three of us have each visited Southern Iraq three times. We also made a trip to Baghdad in October 2015 to present our project to a conference under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s office.
• In May 2013, we conducted a four-day Phyto-Remediation workshop for 35 water specialists from all over Iraq in connection with the Ministry of Environment.
• In March 2014, we gained the support and proposed financial backing of the Directorate of Dhi Qar province as well as from the Iraqi Ministries of Water Resources, and the Environment and the Center for Restoration of Iraqi Marshes and Wetlands.
• An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report as well as detailed preliminary designs were prepared for the Directorate and are available upon request.
• In March 2015, we held a University-funded workshop/symposium in Singapore, so that our entire team could present the project to an international audience as well as have time to work together.

The work continues most often through a shared digital space that includes constant communication, Skype meetings, design work, visual documentation, research, and fabrication. Photographs, videos, exhibitions and conferences are bringing the stories and struggles of this unique community into numerous shared interest domains. Site drawings, 3-dimensional models and prototypes augment an exhibition and accompanying book to leave a permanent record inside and outside of Iraq.

The Road Ahead

Eden Again, Southern Iraq, 2011-2013

The Eden in Iraq project demonstrates the inseparability of environmental and cultural heritage, confirmed this summer by UNESCO’s designation of the marshes as a World Heritage Site. We are interested in linking countries, emerging from war, to the healing power of nature as well as culture, creating symbols that allow integration and transformation of a dark history. To literally transform human waste into a garden, in the vicinity of the Garden of Eden, creates countless associations. To call attention to centuries of conflict through such a simple system is at the heart of Eden in Iraq. To really restore Eden, recognition of waste must be included to make things grow.

Ehmad and his Boat

Eden in Iraq Project Update: October 2015
Our Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden Project has had to adjust to the backwards and forwards swings  of a conflict zone.
We are both encouraged by the progress of our project and disheartened.
When we take a wide view, this difficult moment is not very different from those we’ve encountered in the past 5 years (our Tier One began January 2013 after 2.5years of inquiry).

Six months after our last successful March 2014 visit to the marshes, jihadist forces(ISIS/Daesh) entered Iraq from  Northwest  Syria and now have control of the Northern source of the Euphrates River at the Mosul and Haditha dams. Turkey’s ongoing building of the Ilisu dam is affecting water shortages of the Tigris as well. An 8 year drought in the marshes was magnified this summer by months of record high temperatures (51c). The marshes are once again dry. Falling oil prices have drained the State of Iraq’s treasury. So there is little the State is doing to help.

The current situation in Southern Iraq, where the population is heavily Shi’ite, remains unthreatened, despite military and political unrest elsewhere. The local and regional governments are functioning. But due to lack of water, there is great damage to livestock, wildlife, and foliage. The quality of life is threatened.  There is lttle water  and it is salty.

Our partner Jassim Al-Asadi, Director of the Nature Iraq office in Al Chibaish, in the midst of the marsh region, is keeping our project alive in the minds of local, regional and state officials. We prepared a requested Environmental Impact Report and preliminary designs for the Dhi Qar Governate a year ago.  The project has now moved from Regional offices to the Ministry of Water Resources(MoWR). But with so many water problems, we will no longer wait for MoWR funding but must proceed with our own fundraising in the coming months.

During this difficult time, we held a Workshop/Symposium in Singapore March 5-8, 2015,.so our entire team, from 5 different countries could work together. Meridel and Peer received HASS CLASS funding, so for 2 days we were joined by other professionals to share publicly our project thus far and to learn about water projects initiated by the University in others parts of the world.

Then we met privately in a closed working session  for two days to continue our design, engineering and chemical analysis process.

After 5 month of 125 F temperatures and withholding of the water by Isis and Turkey to keep the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flowing, people were angry.  The marshes are dried out for a 2nd time.

We were invited October 5th and 6th  to make a presentation at the Emergency Conference for Restoration of the Marshes in Baghdad which was organized by our partner Nature Iraq and the Development Center for Energy and Water.
In addition to 30 angry Tribal sheiks from the south, 35 NGOS, 11 internationals, and many government officials attended including representatives from the Prime Ministers Office. One of our team members from Italy, Davide Tocchetto, joined me.
We couldn’t have continued our Tier 1 Project without our appearance and networking there.  What became evident to people at the national level is that we  DO have a solution for the ever increasing local sewage problems whether there is drought or not.

For more See Project update link

The project site is on the main road from Basra to Nasariyah, across from the new Mesopotamian Marshes National Park. We envision this to be a site for locals to rest and enjoy their natural and cultural heritage of the marshes. In these difficult times, visitors will find here, with a symbolic meeting of the two great rivers near the historic Garden of Eden, a metaphor for opposing forces finding relief and restoration in the remediation of Nature.

Models and drawings were part of the ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art) conference in Albuquerque, NM September 2012 in the form of “Eden Again” as research for “EDEN IN IRAQ”. The video below informed this installation.