The Marshes of southern Iraq, drained by the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and named a World Heritage Site by the UN cultural agency UNESCO in 2003, now face another threat in the shape of desertification owing to an ongoing drought.
The drought affecting the Marshes is now entering its fourth year and “is one of the worst effects of climate change” in the region, said environmental activist Jassim Al-Asadi of Iraq Nature, a local NGO.
Iraq Nature has been working with local people, the so-called “Marsh Arabs,” to reflood the Marshes in an effort to preserve their unique ecosystem and associated human culture.
“According to UN reports, Iraq is the fifth-most vulnerable country to climate change, but there are other important reasons for the crisis, such as the water policies of neighbouring countries and the poor water policies of successive Iraqi governments,” Al-Asadi said.
Dams on the Euphrates River, which feeds the Western Marshes, mean that the volume of water reaching the Hadith Dam in the west of Iraq is only 112 cubic metres per second, while according to the Iraqi-Syrian and Turkish protocol on the river, signed in 1987, it should not be less than 500 cubic metres per second at the Turkish-Syrian border, with Iraq’s share of the river’s water being 58 per cent.
The Tigris River that feeds the Eastern Marshes has also decreased in volume, delivering about 220 cubic metres per second of water, far below the 409 cubic metres per second needed. This means that a lot of stored water is being consumed, of which only nine billion cubic metres remains, Al-Asadi said.
The Iraqi Wetlands (Marshes) of southern Iraq stretched over some 9,000 square km of land before being drained by the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1990s. Since then, work has been carried out to reflood 5,600 square km, with 97 per cent of the target reached by the end of 2019, Al-Asadi said. However, the ongoing drought has been reversing these efforts.
During a tour of the remaining Chibayish Marshes in a mashhuof, a type of wooden canoe that has been used since the Sumerian era going back to 5000 BCE, local resident Abu Haider pushes it along using a pole in the shallow water, now only 54 cm deep whereas it was 194 cm deep in 2019-2020.
He sings in a melodious voice in the unique Arabic dialect of the Marsh Arabs, which is part of the region’s cultural heritage and has been the object of preservation efforts. The song says that his love has left him, taking his mind with her, leaving a pain in his heart, and with the doctors having no cure for his condition.
Despite their difficult circumstances, the local Marsh Arabs welcome visitors with smiling faces, waving as they cross the Marshes in boats or from their traditional houses built of reeds using the same techniques used by the ancient Sumerians thousands of years ago. The houses look like small islands floating on the water.
We come across Nour, a 14-year-old boy accompanying about eight buffaloes towards a place where there is fresh water. He says that the soaring temperatures have caused water evaporation and salinity in the Marshes, and this harms or kills the buffaloes.
Buffalo breeder Mohamed Said says that he has lost three buffaloes because of the increasing salinity and has had to sell three others cheaply in order to support his family.
“The buffalo breeders have lost 20 to 30 per cent of their herds from 2021 until today,” Al-Asadi said, adding that local fishermen have also been seeing fish stocks go down by as much as 90 per cent, plunging the families that rely on them into extreme poverty.
The buffalo breeders have had to buy fresh water for their herds or go deep into the remaining areas of the Marshes to find it for them. Hundreds of families have moved to other areas where they can still find fresh water.
An amazing scene opens up in front of us, with flocks of white water birds flying overhead and dozens of ducks swimming by. “One of the reasons the Marshes were made a World Heritage Site was because of their biodiversity and their being a place for many kinds of migratory birds, among them some on the international list of endangered species,” Al-Asadi said.
There are no indications that the Marshes will be removed from the list, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.
The draining of the Marshes was cited by the Iraqi opposition as a crime against the environment and humanity committed by the former regime before the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in April 2003.
“But today the former opposition has taken power, and the politicians are preoccupied with other issues that are more important in terms of personal benefits. We only hear from them from time to time, making statements that do not lead to any achievements,” Al-Asadi said.
The Iraqi Marshes are a place where history was born, part the cradle of civilisation in this part of ancient Mesopotamia. This is the place where Gilgamesh went to find the herb of immortality in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh written in c. 2100-1200 BCE. It is identified as the location of the Garden of Eden in the Bible.
The area is “unique as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems in an extremely hot and arid environment,” according to UNESCO.
Today, there is a need for greater local and international efforts to stop the Marshes disappearing, which would mean the disappearance of a place associated with the dawn of history.
Greater efforts must be made to prevent the Garden of Eden from dying.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly