Man-made disaster: World is losing Mesopotamian Marshes

The Mesopotamian Marshes – a World Heritage site in southern Iraq – survived Saddam Hussein’s campaign to drain the wetlands. Now they’re drying up, and biodiversity is collapsing in yet another man-made crisis exacerbated by climate change.

In just three years, the flourishing vast marshlands of southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province have shriveled to narrow channels of polluted water bordered by cracked and salty earth with devastating impacts on the local inhabitants, many of whom have been forced to migrate for their survival.

Hundreds of desiccated fish dot stream banks, along with the carcasses of water buffalo poisoned by saline water. Drought has parched tens of thousands of hectares of fields and orchards, and villages are emptying as farmers abandon their land.

For their biodiversity and cultural significance, the United Nations in 2016 named the Mesopotamian Marshes—which historically stretched between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometers in the floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The marshes comprised one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, a startling oasis in an extremely hot and arid environment, home to 22 globally endangered species and 66 at-risk bird species.

But now this ecosystem—which includes alluvial salt marshes, swamps, and freshwater lakes—is collapsing, due to a combination of factors meteorological, hydrological, and political. Rivers are rapidly shrinking, and agricultural soil that once grew bounties of barley and wheat, pomegranates, and dates is blowing away. The environmental disaster is harming wildlife and driving tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs, who have occupied this area for 5,000 years, to seek livelihoods elsewhere.

Experts warn that unless radical action is taken to ensure the region receives adequate water—and better manages what remains—southern Iraq’s marshlands will disappear, with sweeping consequences for the entire nation as farmers and pastoralists abandon their land for already crowded urban areas and loss of production leads to rising food prices.

The Mesopotamian marshlands are often referred to as the cradle of civilization, as anthropologists believe that this is where humankind, some 12,000 years ago, started its wide-scale transition from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement. Encompassing four separate marshes, the region has historically been home to a unique range of fish and birdlife, serving as winter habitat for migratory birds and sustaining a productive shrimp and finfish fishery.

But in the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein began systematically destroying the marshes—bombing and draining them to evict and punish Marsh Arabs for participating in uprisings against his regime. Ultimately, the Iraqi president’s campaign reduced marsh water levels by 90 percent.

After the Iraq War, the new government and Marsh Arabs began to dismantle embankments and drainage works. A subsequent UN-implemented rehydration project reported restoring surface water and vegetation to 58 percent of the marsh’s original size by 2006. Wildlife began reappearing, and by 2020, when the post-Saddam recovery was at its peak, around 250,000 Marsh Arabs had returned to their homeland to resume harvesting reeds, cultivating crops, herding water buffalo, and fishing.

The marshlands and their surrounding buffer zones currently cover roughly 4,000 square kilometers, but these environmental gains are again jeopardized as Iraq enters its fourth year of drought. Upstream, in both Turkey and Iran, new dams and diversions continue to proliferate, without coordination or international cooperation, on the rivers that supply almost all of Iraq’s water.

Last July, the Iraqi government said that its water reserves had dropped by 60 percent since the previous year. The low water flows have left huge swathes of marshland completely dry. Without water for irrigation, farmers don’t plant. Without roots to hold soil, desertification looms.

Impact on local population

Abdul Walid Abdul, 50, and his wife, Layla Jabar Hassan, 45, are Marsh Arabs whose family for generations lived off the rice and vegetables they grew in the Hawizeh marshes, as well as the buffalo they raised. It was ‘like heaven,’ Abdul says. The family could earn 1m dinars (£550) with each harvest. But when the water dried up the trees started dying. ‘Now there is no more farming. I have had to stop it all. As there is no rain or water it is impossible to farm,’ Abdul says.

Abdul’s family left their farm and headed to the town of Al Musharrah in search of work. They live on the outskirts in poor housing. He now works as a guard at an abandoned water recycling project run by the government. He earns 400,000 dinars a month.

“Now they control us. They pay us a salary, but we have lost our freedom. But we need to do this and however it feels, we need to thank God for everything.”

Layla Jabar Hassan, Abdul’s wife, misses life on the farm. “We never realised we could be in this situation,” she says. “We used to be so strong. We felt important then. Here we are not.”

For the first time she has a paid job as a school housekeeper. It has long been a taboo for women from the Marsh Arabs community to work outside the home. She earns 500,000 dinars a month – more than her husband.

On the other hand, Zeinab Haida, 45, works at a market stall in Al Musharrah. She says the land where she used to live is now ‘like a desert’. She lives with her seven children and has to work to support the family as her husband is sick. “I am forced to do this job. If I just sit in this house there is no food. There is no other solution.”

On the other hand, Ghalib Ammon, 50, is one of the last farmers to leave the marshes. He has spent his whole life here, fishing and raising water buffalo, just as his family has done for years. “I am about to leave along with everyone else,” he says. “Every summer is hotter than the one before and there is not nearly as much rain as before.”

“The lack of water is destroying agriculture and fishing,’ says Ammon. ‘When the water buffalo have water, they produce 30 litres of milk. Without water, it’s only 10. If this year doesn’t get any more rain, I doubt anyone will be here next year.”

Human-made infrastructure and climate change  

“The situation in the marshes now is worse than when Saddam was trying to destroy them,” says Hayder A Al Thamiry, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Baghdad. That’s because water at that time still flowed from Iran into eastern Iraq’s Huwaizah Marshes, keeping at least that portion of the system alive. But ever since Iran, in 2009, completed construction of a 56-kilometer-long weir along its border with Iraq, water no longer flows into the Huwaizah during periods of drought. Now all the marshes, says Al Thamiry, “are suffering very badly”.

Low river flows have knock-on effects on the quality of what water remains. Today, sea water intrudes as far as 189 kilometers upstream from the Persian Gulf and has destroyed more than 24,000 hectares of agricultural land and 30,000 trees. Without inundations of fresh water, pollutants from agriculture, the oil and gas industry, and sewage have also become more concentrated.

Climate change is, of course, making matters worse—diminishing rainfall (Iraq has seen record low rainfall in recent years) and increasing temperatures, which accelerate evaporation from reservoirs and streams. According to the UN Environment Programme, Iraq is the fifth-most-vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change. “Over the last couple of years there has been consistently less rain, less water, less productivity from the land, and an increasing number of dust storms,” said Salah El Hajj Hassan, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Iraq.

Mismanagement takes a toll as well. Iraq’s water infrastructure hasn’t been sufficiently maintained or modernized; unlined ditches and canals leak water into the soil; and power cuts hinder water pumping and storage. Often, farmers flood their fields to irrigate, rather than using more parsimonious, targeted ways of watering, and villagers dig illegal wells and divert water from shared rivers.


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