Hope and Renewal in the Iraqi Marshlands

by Berklee Lowrey-Evans
Monday, December 15, 2008

The modern story of the Iraqi Marshlands begins tragically - with intentional environmental destruction used as a political weapon - but today is one of miraculous renewal, international cooperation and hope. Once at the brink of total collapse, the area has been restored to a point where it will soon be proposed as a UN World Heritage Site.

The Iraqi Marshlands, said to be the location of the Garden of Eden, are also home to a 5,000-year-old civilization and rich biodiversity. Located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southeastern Iraq, with a small extension into Iran, the wetlands used to cover 9,000-20,000 square kilometers and supported a population of over 500,000 Ma'dan, or Marsh Arabs.

Ma'dan (Marsh Arabs) in the restored Iraqi Wetlands
Ma'dan (Marsh Arabs) in the restored Iraqi Wetlands
Heathcliff O'Malley

In the early 1970s, Saddam Hussein began rerouting water from the marshes to agriculture in the north, and by the 1980s was forcibly resettling entire Ma'dan villages. After the 1991 Shi'a insurrection, Saddam persecuted the Ma'dan for allegedly harboring Iranian guerrillas and Shi'a insurgents, eventually killing tens of thousands of people. He also created a diabolically effective water diversion project. Multiple canals, dams, levees, and even a new "river," the Um-Al-Maarik (Mother of All Battles - named for the 1991 Kuwait war), were created to divert water away from the marshes. By the time of the US invasion in 2003, nearly 200,000 people had fled their homes. The marshlands, formerly twice the size of the Everglades, had shrunk to a mere 760 square kilometers.

Even amid the chaos in Iraq after the US invasion, many recognized the importance of restoring this wetland before it was too late. Shortly after Saddam's overthrow in 2003, southern Iraqi farmers began blowing up dams and dikes to let water back in. Azzam and Suzie Alwash, scientists and directors of Nature Iraq, are leading the official charge for restoration in conjunction with US universities, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Italian Ministry of the Environment, and a number of Iraqi ministries.

As of September, 65% of the wetlands have been reflooded, with over half of them revegetated, and some 90,000 Ma'dan have returned. Native macro-invertebrates, fish and birds have also returned to re-flooded areas. The marshes are a key part of the lifecycles of migratory fish and shrimp that move through the Tigris and Euphrates basins; they also serve as an annual resting place for millions of birds migrating between Siberia and Africa. The Iraqi Marshlands are home to the rare Sacred Ibis and the threatened Iraq babbler, which has finally returned after decades.

Although USAID's Iraqi Marshlands Restoration Program was phased out at the end of 2006, it still supports marshland restoration as part of a three-year agribusiness program in Iraq. The other organizations are still hard at work, aiming for the creation of the Mesopotamian Marshlands National Park. If approved, the Marshlands of Mesopotamia could become a World Heritage Site in 2011. The park will work to protect the environment, promote socio-economic development, protect and re-introduce endangered species, preserve cultural heritage, and establish ecological corridors.

Local indigenous knowledge of how to live sustainably in this unique ecosystem still exists. The marshlands have never been "pristine" or "untouched"; they have been abundantly occupied and well-tended systems. The new national park proposes to restore them to this state, integrating nature and culture in a seamless balance.

"We can't live without the marshes or without the water. We belong to this. So you can imagine our feelings when the water came back," said a Marsh Arab who was forced into exile and returned when the water was let back in.

While there is much hope for the future of the Iraqi Marshlands, they are still in danger from proposed development projects. It has been estimated that three billion cubic meters of water are needed to restore the marshes entirely, yet this much water doesn't exist in the whole of Iraq. To compound the situation, over 30 dams have been built or proposed for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers since the 1990s. It has been estimated that Turkey's Southeast Anatolia project alone will cut Iraq's current water resources by half. There are also a growing number of irrigation projects upstream in Syria and Turkey that will divert much-needed water away from Iraq and its marshlands. So while much progress is being made, serious international water rights issues still pose a threat to this important and unique ecosystem.