At last the Garden of Eden in southern Iraq will have ecologically sound waste treatment and re-use.
Iraq forms the southeasterly bend of the Fertile Crescent and literally means the land between two rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Amid the country’s ongoing strife it’s sometimes easy to forget that Iraq is the birthplace of Western civilization and where legend placed the Garden of Eden. This once rich wetland has supported 5,000 years of culture and the largest wetland in western Eurasia, is home to the richest ecosystem in the world, home to otters, sacred ibises and basra reed warblers, and an important layover for migrating flocks of flamingos, pelicans, and herons.
The most recent inhabitants, Iraq’s Marsh Arabs, have evolved a way of life intimately enmeshed with the wetlands, using its reeds for their houses and to sustain their water buffalo- a way of life that stretches back centuries.
But recent decades have been disastrous and unprecedented for both the region’s ecology and inhabitants. The Marsh Arabs are Shi’ites and joined in an attempt to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s. Saddam’s reprisals were brutal—bombing Marsh Arab villages, hunting down opponents, and accelerating plans to build a system of canals through the rear of the wetlands that contributed to draining vast swathes of Marsh Arab territory (dams in Turkey and Syria also reduced water flow in this period). The result was that the marshes dried out and became deserts, and virtually all the half million or so Marsh Arabs were abruptly forced to leave since their way of life was destroyed.
Then, in 2003, following the fall of Saddam’s government, local Marsh Arabs, assisted by Nature Iraq (www.natureiraq.org), an NGO dedicated to conserving Iraq’s environment and cultures, punched holes in the diversion canals. The Tigris and Euphrates again flowed in their natural channels. Now, a decade later, about half of the historic marshes are recovering, and hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs are returning from their forced exile.
This is a rare piece of good news in a country that is once again beset by sectarian conflict, and it is not without its problems. Although some Marsh Arabs have returned to their traditional lives in reed islands among the wetlands, most have spent the past decade living in the environs of major cities like Baghdad. They have largely returned to towns on the outskirts of the marshes. These communities often have no sewage treatment, a condition unfortunately very prevalent in the developing world. The Iraqi government has created “switch plants”—ostensibly to take away rain from the houses through deep drainage pipes, but in reality taking the raw sewage to a centralized pumping station. Here, the sewage is simply pumped into the wetlands and rivers. The health and environmental consequences are dire.
In 2011, I was contacted by Meridel Rubenstein, a world-class photographer who is a professor of art at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She had a vision of a symbolic art/ecology project: Eden in Iraq (Ecological and Cultural Restoration through Art, Design, and Environmental Science; www.meridelrubenstein.com/eden-in-iraq). In researching the history of the wetlands and its legendary status as the Garden of Eden, she’d discovered both the waste disposal problem and my work with so called “Wastewater Gardens”—high biodiversity constructed wetlands to treat and recycle sewage while supporting beautiful and productive gardens and landscapes (www.wastewatergardens.com).
Meridel suggested we both get in touch with Azzam Alwash, the Iraqi-American who founded Nature Iraq, which had done so much to restore the marshes, and suggest how we might be able to help. Alwash immediately seized the opportunity and connected us with Jassim al-Asadi, a water engineer who heads the Nature Iraq efforts in the wetlands. The next step was to try and work out how to adapt my work to an Iraqi context.
Constructed wetlands for sewage treatment is an approach that has been rapidly evolving over the past few decades. They change the paradigm from viewing sewage as a “toxic waste” to dealing with it as a natural resource. Constructed wetlands offer a much more natural approach to sewage treatment than conventional sewage plants because they utilize the same mechanisms that make natural wetlands so effective at reducing pollutants and nutrients—plants and microbes. So unlike high-tech sewage plants that require large amounts of machinery, electricity, and chemicals, constructed wetlands are mainly powered by sunlight and rely far more on gravity-flow than pumps. This makes them often less expensive to build and far cheaper to operate. Maintenance costs can be 10 percent that of the high-tech approach and the systems can last far longer. Instead of a sewage “factory,” green zones are created and wastewater is recycled, not simply treated and discharged. Design engineering takes into account the local climate, which also dictates which plants can be used, but constructed wetlands work in both cold and tropical regions and are also valuable because they conserve high-quality water by creating landscape greenery through using water that is otherwise wasted.
“Wastewater Gardens” is an approach to constructed wetlands that had its origin in Biosphere 2, a two-year experiment in which eight crew members lived inside a large closed ecological system in Arizona. I was one of that crew of “biospherians” and fell in love with the constructed wetlands developed for the Biosphere to recycle domestic animal and human “wastewater.” The wastewater supplied the nutrients that created two sets of beautiful wetland ecologies. Remaining nutrients and the now much cleaner water was sent back to the irrigation supply of our mini-farm and so the system was designed for sustainable maintenance of soil fertility. As an added benefit, I periodically pruned the vegetation and fed it to the chickens and goats, thus giving us extra eggs and milk.
After Biosphere 2, I researched constructed wetlands while a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida and developed “Wastewater Gardens,” first with the support of the Biosphere Foundation (www.biospherefoundation.org) and now with the Institute of Ecotechnics (www.ecotechnics.edu) and my company, Wastewater Gardens International, which has a network of regional affiliates implementing the systems. We have since created over 150 systems in 11 countries.
Wastewater Gardens systems use a wide biodiversity of plants with the aims of making constructed wetlands more beautiful and ecologically robust than systems that use just one or two types of plants (so-called “reed-beds”). This allows us to include plants with harvest/commercial value, ones that benefit wildlife, and attractive plants that make the systems appear as beautiful gardens and green landscapes.
There are three steps in a Wastewater Garden system. First is primary treatment, separating sewage solids from liquids, which is done in sedimentation tanks (septic tanks) where anaerobic bacteria begin the purification process. Next, the liquids pass to the constructed wetland itself. In very large systems, such as those we plan for the Marsh Arab towns, there are two types of wetland: vertical flow and horizontal flow. In both, the wastewater is kept subsurface, so that there is no odor. The vertical flow wetlands are dose-fed batches of wastewater to their entire surface. As the wastewater drains downwards through the 2 to 3 feet of gravel media, the plants and the beneficial aerobic bacteria on their root systems and on the gravel take up many of the nutrients that would otherwise cause eutrophication of waters when raw sewage is sent into the environment.
Next, the semi-treated wastewater goes to the horizontal flow wetlands (which fill up like bathtubs) where further treatment by the wetland plants and microbes (now again mostly anaerobic ones since these wetlands are not well-aerated like the vertical-flow wetland cells). Pathogens, disease-causing bacteria, in the sewage are killed by a myriad of natural mechanisms, and constructed wetlands can achieve 99+ percent control without the use of expensive and harmful chemicals like chlorine.
The last stage is using the treated water for subsoil irrigation—a final green landscape which can use a wider variety of plants since they are now growing in soil. These plants continue utilizing the freshwater and remaining nutrients, reducing discharge and making more complete use and recycle of the wastewater.
Back in Iraq
The proposed Wastewater Gardens for the Marsh Arab towns has been enthusiastically approved by two of the large towns in the region, which understand that the current situation endangers both their health and the health of the wetlands. Our restoration project, “Eden in Iraq,” has also recently gained the support and financial backing of the Directorate of Dhi Qar province (which includes the wetland region) with help from the Iraqi Ministries of Water Resources and the Environment and the Center for Restoration of Iraqi Marshes and Wetlands. With the support of a grant from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore where Meridel teaches, we are developing plans to make our first project also a symbolic celebration of the region’s rich culture and history. Meridel Rubenstein’s design team includes Prof. Peer Sathikh (NTU) an environmental designer, Dr. Sander van der Leeuw, archaeologist and former Dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona and Dr. Davide Tocchetto, an Italian constructed-wetland designer who has built systems serving thousands of people in Europe, and myself. In the past year, the Iraqi government has created the first National Park in the country, protecting most of the restored marshes as the Mesopotamian National Park.
Our initial project is for some 6,000 Marsh Arabs in Al-Manar, a town that lies in the wetland region between Basra and Nasiriyah, creating constructed wetlands for the sewage collected by one of the town’s switch plants. Among the plants we will use in the wetlands are oleander, pomegranate, date palm, taro (elephant ear), bougainvillea, papyrus, canna lilies, fig, and olive. The vertical-flow wetlands feature a wide diversity of native plants found in the surrounding marshes. The gardens will also have an educational display of their beauty and water-purifying power—and should become a symbol of the slow return to health of this vital ecosystem and of the people who live there.
The current situation as we write (July 2014) is that despite military and political unrest elsewhere in Iraq, southern Iraq where the population is heavily Shi’ite, remains undisturbed. The local government is functioning and we hear from Jassim Al Asadi, the director of the Nature Iraq office in Al Chibaish, in the midst of the marsh region, that our project is proceeding with an Environmental Impact Assessment and Economic Feasibility study. Project Director, Meridel Rubenstein writes: “The design team is continuing to finalize the design, using local materials like adobe brick, woven reeds, ceramic tiles and relief patterns from the rich history of the region. The project site is on the main road from Basra to Nasariyah and on to Baghad, across from the Mesopotamian 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.”