The Decimation of the Fertile Crescent’s Marshlands is Destabilizing Iraq

Published February 4th, 2019 - 10:42 GMT
The dead marshes (AFP/FILE, edited by Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
The dead marshes (AFP/FILE, edited by Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)



“The water's just bad. It's so salty, it's not like it was before,” Amjad Mohamed, an Iraqi who used to live in Iraq’s famed marshes says. ”I prefer not to be in the marshes than to see them like that.”

Mesopotamia, the ancient cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the primary region for agricultural production in Iraq, is drying up and withering away.

It is slowly dying.

Through a combination of governmental mismanagement, climate change and upstream damming, the waterways, marshes and wetlands that helped nourish the world’s first civilizations, are being drained; its waters made toxic and undrinkable. Experts estimate that they are now hovering between 40-50 percent of their original size, and are shrinking fast.

Saddam Hussein destroyed most of the Mesopotamian marshes as form of political retribution for its inhabitants rebelling against his rule in the 1990s, but experts and activists tell Al Bawaba the marshes are again facing a series of existential threats that may reverberate across the entire country.

The Ma’dan people of southern Iraq have, for generations, depended on the country’s vast network of marshes for their livelihood. They are now draining and evaporating while their water becomes more salinous and polluted.

The disappearance of the marshes will displace not only their homes and economy, but exacerbate a set of wide-ranging eco-political issues that have caused near-constant protests and mass demonstrations in southern Iraq.

The chronic chaos in Basra is intimately linked to the destruction of Iraq’s Mesopotamian waterways, and both of these issues contribute to an impending catastrophe for the current Iraqi government if it is unable to draft a durable plan for the country’s threatened agricultural sector and infrastructure.

As the marshes in Mesopotamia evaporate and are replaced by muddy wastelands, so too go the prospects for long-term stability and peace in Iraq.


Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq 2000-2009 (NASA)


The Marshes that Made the Middle East

Ma’dan people on Iraq’s marshlands (Wikipedia)

The Mesopotamian marshes are the biggest in the Middle East, and have been inhabited by Ma’dan farmers who have worked its arable land and waterways for nearly six thousand years. The Ma’dan people, also sometimes referred to as the Marsh Arabs, harvest rice and reeds among other plants while fishing and herding water buffalo.

They live in loose clusters of small villages mostly on or near the water, speak their own distinct dialect of Arabic and are mostly Shia Muslims. Their homes are often made of the reeds found thriving in the marsh waters.

The marshes historically constitute some of Iraq’s most arable land and helped to feed the world’s first civilizations. The Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian Empires all depended on the marshes’ annual crop yields and waterways to survive.


Homes built on the marshes (AFP/FILE)

As a whole, the region of Mesopotamia was the site of fierce battles between the Roman and Parthian Empires between 150 BCE and 300 CE, who each vied for the region’s land, which formed part of the famed ‘Fertile Crescent.’

“And, of course,” says Richard Porter, a former consultant with Nature Iraq, who has worked to preserve the marshes for years, “the Iraq Marshes are the most important wetland for wildlife in the Middle East, providing a safe haven for millions of migratory birds and a breeding place for unique bird populations.”


Saddam’s Obliteration of the Mesopotamia



The most serious threat to the marshes’ existence came in the summer of 1991, when Iraq’s ruler Saddam Hussein began a program to drain and redirect its waterways as a way of punishing the Ma’dan people.

Many of them supported rebellions throughout the country between March-April 1991: Saddam’s regime, who was reeling from successive and costly wars againsts Iran and Kuwait, wanted to set an example for other potential dissidents by destroying the marshes and uprooting the Ma’dan.

Saddam targeted the two rivers which fed the marshes their water: the Tigris and the Euphrates.

For the Euphrates, Saddam’s regime diverted nearly its entire waterflow into a canal named the Third River, which bypassed the marshes and led directly to the sea.

For the Tigris, Saddam’s engineers built a complex series of gates and locks which  blocked water from reaching distributaries of the wetlands. The regime also redirected water flow to an embanked canal running away from the marshes. According to a 1993 New Scientist report, Saddam’s plan for emptying the marshes closely followed a similar plan developed by the British in the 1950s.

Nadhir al-Ansari, a professor who specializes in civil engineering and hydrogeology at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, was in Iraq when Saddam began draining the marshes. “The people were told that pro-Iranian soldiers are hiding in the marshes. There were no Iranian soldiers within the marshes,” he tells Al Bawaba.

Hassan Partow, a program manager at the U.N. Environment's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch and author of the book “Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem,” was monitoring the drainage via satellite imagery.

“I recall the government mounting a propaganda campaign dehumanizing the Ma’dan as being backward, immoral and also treacherous for providing refuge to those who participated in the popular uprising of 1991,” Partow says.

“The drainage was portrayed as an agricultural  project to reclaim the marshes, which were written-off as a wasteland infested with mosquitoes and disease.”

The result of the years-long drainage project was devastating. Ninety percent of the wetlands were totally emptied, and of the 250,000 Ma’dan subsisting off the land, only a few thousand remained. The rest were forcibly displaced and in a desperate search for alternate means of stability and welfare. About 100,000 trekked to refugee camps inside Iran.

Saddam had engineered one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in history, evaporating the ancient waterways that fed much of the country in the name of preserving his increasingly untenable hold on power.

“The marshes were a state outside of Saddam’s control. The resources were a great boon,” remembers Fadel Duwaish, who was forced to leave to leave the marshes after Saddam began their destruction. “The marshes contained a wealth of fish, the wealth of raising water buffalo. You could turn the reeds into paper. All of the marsh was a treasure.”

By 2003, the marshes were a wasteland of hip-high mud.


The End of Saddam, the Beginning of a Climate Catastrophe



The end of Saddam’s regime in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq also ended his project to eliminate the marshes. Soon thereafter, Ma’dan people who previously relied on the marshes for their livelihoods began to restore them.

“It was quite spontaneous at first. With the collapse of the government, marsh communities almost immediately took matters in their own hands,” Partow says.

“Together with some engineers from the local irrigation offices, they used excavators to punch holes in the dykes and the water started flowing back again. It was as simple as that.”

With the water’s restored flow back into the marshlands, water buffalo herders, fisherman and others, who were forced to relocate north, slowly began to return.

However, hopes that an ecological miracle might be pulled off were cut down by the daunting reality that Turkish and Iranian damming has been severely constricting water flow downstream into Iraq.

Both countries have instituted ambitious energy programs that call for industrial-scale dams and riverworks to be built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.


A local resident of Hasankeyf overlooks the Tigris River (AFP/FILE)

One such dam being built now in Turkey threatens not only to further cut off Iraq from the Tigris River, but to drown a 12,000 year-old town in its reservoir.

The Ilisu Dam project will be Turkey’s second largest and will almost completely submerge Hasankeyf, a small town in the majority-Kurdish, southeastern region of Turkey. Its old citadel, churches, walls and mosques are all scheduled to disappear under the reservoir's depths. International investors pulled out to disavow responsibility for the town’s disappearance, but local Turkish investors are financing the project, which is estimated to be completed within a year.

To these dams that are built upstream, Iraq’s government downstream is virtually powerless to stop or challenge them.

On top of the damming, some regions of the marshes are being re-made into oil fields. Underneath the ancient waterways lies vast fields of oil that almost single handedly finance the Iraqi state and account for the majority of its GDP.

Al-Ansari estimates that about a fourth of the marshes have already been converted to oil fields and dry agricultural land. Nature Iraq, a non-profit organization dedication to conservation explains that Iraqi politicians have not prioritized the needs of the marshes.

According to the organization, the politicians “view the rivers as abstract resources that they can pollute, divert, drain and trade away without consideration to the communities and ecosystems that are destroyed in their wake.”

In 2008, the marshes were 75 percent restored. By 2015, they had shrunk down to 58 percent of their original size. In 2019, the marshes’ sizes average 40-50 percent of what they once were.

The effects of climate change are further damaging the prospect for the marshes’ restoration. Volatile weather conditions including droughts and sudden floods are creating unstable waterflows that in turn make it unpredictable to try and till the land.

The summer of 2018 brought an intense heat wave and dry spell that wreaked havoc in Iraq’s south, but the following winter has been marked by intense floods: “the current availability of water in the marshes that came after severe dryness in the past summer had led to noticeable confusion in the locals' movements as many families have left the marshes targeting the banks of River Tigris and Euphrates in summer to keep their buffalo alive, then they came back again after the rains and raising the water levels,” reports Richard Porter to Al Bawaba.

A recent climate report by the Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks paints a dark picture for Iraq’s long-term viability: “Climate change is currently manifesting itself in prolonged heat waves, erratic precipitation, higher than average temperatures and increased disaster intensity.”

One such prolonged heat wave hit 50C and knocked out southern Iraq’s fledgling water infrastructure, sending 100,000 to the hospital thanks to overly-salinated water.

The report estimates that by 2050, the average temperature of Iraq will shoot up by 2C, meaning such heatwaves will only increase in intensity.

By drying the rivers upstream, diverting waterways to other projects and shrinking marsh use for oil extraction, many of the marshes are now slowly evaporating and growing stagnant. As a consequence, its salinity levels are rising, making the water and soil that constitute the marshes themselves too toxic for life.

Resource extraction, mismanagement, climate change and water salinization are slowly eating away at the Mesopotamia and threatening to realize Saddam’s project of eliminating the marshes entirely.


An Eco-Political Crisis: The South of Iraq is Becoming a Desert

An Iraqi man sits near a stagnant pool of water in former marshlands (AFP/FILE)

In the natural world, certain species, called bioindicators, can be studied to measure the overall health of the environment. The honey bee is an example of a bioindicator.

If the honey bee’s global decline is a bioindicator of a mass extinction caused by climate change and human activity, then the erasure of Iraq’s marshes is a bioindicator signalling the deterioration of Iraq’s ecological and political stability.

The marshes’ disappearance is a byproduct of a decline in overall water resources matched with an uptick in unpredictable climate; two processes that are partially to blame for much of Iraq’s instability as a whole.

Iraq’s most economically vital port city, Basra, is downstream from the marshes and their feeder rivers. And the same patterns of deprivation and mismanagement of its natural resources that is killing the marshes also led to 100,000 people being hospitalized after a heatwave due to drinking polluted water in the city over the summer of 2018.

Mass demonstrations by disenchanted Basrawis protesting against the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions have tested the fledgling Iraqi government’s political will and ability to respond to such crises, which will likely only get more urgent and far-reaching.



Millions of Iraqis in the south of country, in one way or another, depend on the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates for their lives and livelihood. They nourish Iraq’s agricultural sector, which employed roughly 30 percent f the country in 2006 but now only employs 19 percent.

Their dwindling waterflows is slowly sapping Iraq of its ability to feed itself and export food, while stripping away jobs and brewing discontent with the government. It’s also forcing mass migrations of Iraqis away from agricultural and economic dead zones:

“From the ISIS crisis and the military operation [against the jihadi group], we had nearly three million internally displaced people (IDPs). But we are expecting four million displaced people over the next eight years from the water crisis,” Yousif Muayed Youssef, an official at Iraq’s Environment Ministry explained.

Though these downward trends are difficult to reverse or control by a singular state like Iraq, Hassan Partow and Nadhir al-Ansari think the country has options to stave off the worst of the ecological damage.

“By controlling the taps of the headwaters, Turkey and Iran clearly have a key role in determining the fate of the marshes,” Partow says.

“At the same time, there is definitely a lot of things that Iraq can do to restore the marshes by shifting from wasteful surface irrigation to more efficient techniques like drip irrigation, growing less water-intensive crops, limiting fish pond farming, and promoting non-farm livelihood alternatives.”


Oil wells burn on the marshes (AFP/FILE)

Al-Anari echoes the call for better drip irrigation: “They should first abandon ongoing irrigation methods. They should use drip irrigation or sprinkler irrigation. This will save plenty of water.” Al-Ansari also recommends better utilizing non-conventional water resources by building more wastewater treatment centers to reuse water and desalinate currently polluted water.

To the central question of Turkish and Iranian damming, Partow calls for Iraq to “expand the dialogue beyond individual dams. Riparian countries of the Tigris and Euphrates basin need to be encouraged to work towards reaching agreement on the equitable and reasonable sharing of its waters, while recognizing the need not to harm the marshes.”

Local authorities must also contain unauthorized use of the rivers that siphons off water and rethink the development of oil fields on top of the marshes, Partow says.

Though these policy moves has the potential to restore the marshes and legislate a more livable and peaceful southern Iraq, they can only be enacted by a functioning state. The absence of such policies likewise suggests that Iraq’s government has yet to fully materialize and begin governing.

In its stead, a vicious cycle is taking form: local and international actors continue depriving Iraq’s scarce water resources, which in turn exacerbates Iraq’s political problems while making the country more volatile and less governable.

Abdel-Karim Hussein, a 48 year-old farmer’s land in the middle of Iraq’s so-called ‘greenbelt’ has already turned into dust.

“I had 1,200 sheep, and now I have just 80. They all died or went blind from the salty water coming out of the drying wells and canals,” he told a reporter.

“I had 1,300 dunums (30 hectares) of farmland. Now it’s completely transformed to desert.”

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