The Mesopotamian Marshes: A Case Study of the Need for Local, National, Regional, and International Action
Stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine…
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
These words were penned by English writer and explorer Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) while documenting the years he spent in the Mesopotamian Marshes in the 1950s. For millennia, Iraq – yes, Iraq – was home to the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, (the third largest in the world), a vast region of reed beds and waterways that once dwarfed the Florida Everglades and has long been held to be the home of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden.
The marshlands covered between twelve and fifteen thousand square kilometers. In a region known for its deserts, they were a globally important freshwater habitat, and an important stop on the flyway for large numbers of migrant and wintering birds, as well as endemic birds and other wildlife including lions, foxes, and two species of otters. They were a vital resource for regional fisheries, reeds, and other natural resources. And they were the home of the indigenous Ma’dan Marsh Arabs, whose culture is directly linked to ancient Sumeria.
All that came to an end in the early 1990s when Shiite Arabs who had staged uprisings following the invasion of Kuwait fled to the marshes to seek refuge from the forces of Saddam Hussein among the waterfowl and the Ma’dan. Always the master of the grand gesture, Hussein ordered the draining of the marshes. Government engineers built a series of dykes, sluices, and diversions, cutting off the country’s two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, reducing the vast marshland to seven percent of its original size. Villages were burned, the water was poisoned. The region turned into a dust bowl. The United Nations Environmental Programme called the destruction of the marshlands the worst environmental disaster of the twentieth century.
For a decade, life hung in the balance in this ancient ecosystem. The indigenous tribes and countless species of wildlife fled, died, struggled, held on by a thread.
When Hussein was overthrown in 2003, local communities of the Ma’dan returned and breached the dykes. As the waters began to return, so did the local people, and wildlife. Within a few years, the effort to re-flood and restore the marshes was joined by the new government in Baghdad, and by Nature Iraq, an NGO led by Iraqi expatriate Azzam Alwash.
Gradually, displaced people have returned to the region to grow rice and dates, to fish, and to raise water buffalo. The region’s biodiversity is returning, with populations of Sacred Ibis, Basra Reed Warblers, and Iraq Babblers once again seen in the marshlands. Tragically, other species have become locally extinct. According to Richard Porter, BirdLife International’s Middle East Advisor, “Bird species had hung on in small spots. When the water spread again, so did the birds. It shows how resilient nature can be, and gives hope that other lost wetlands can be restored.” According to conservationists, the resurgence of the marshes is nothing short of miraculous, with all 278 recorded bird species found again throughout the region. Madhafar Salim, chief ornithologist for Nature Iraq, concedes, however, that some damage was permanent: “While some patches returned,” he said, “others did not.”
Earlier this year, Alwash was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in the marshlands. And on July 23rd, 2013, a memorable day not just for the Ma’dan, not just for Alwash, not just for Iraq, but for the world, Iraq’s Council of Ministers approved the designation of the Mesopotamian Marshes as the country’s first national park. Azzam Alwash said of the decision: “With this action, Iraq has acted to preserve the cradle of civilization. It is now the duty of the world to help Iraq maintain these wetlands for future generations by helping Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran to reach an equitable agreement on the sharing of the waters in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates.”
Nature Iraq is cautious about the future. The chief threat to the marshes comes from the hydro-politics of the region. Syria, Turkey, and Iran, upstream neighbors of Iraq, are increasingly restricting the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates. According to Alwash, “The marshes receive as little as 12 billion cubic meters of water annually, compared to 60 billion before regulation upstream. But with the measures in place, our models predict we can recover up to 75% of the original marshes.”
Photo: Ali Arkady and Rawsht Twana.
To help to counter the diversions upstream, Nature Iraq has persuaded the government in Baghdad to construct an embankment that enables water flow in the Euphrates to be diverted into the marshes in spring, recreating the strong pulse of water essential to the region’s ecological cycle. In 2012, 76 percent of the potentially restorable marshland flooded.
Further threats to the marsh are posed by Iraq’s urbanization and development. “I see areas that have been the same way for thousands of years being obstructed by roads. Development is encroaching into the wildlife’s area and taking away habitats,” says Alwash. “I want progress, but I don’t want development to overtake the Iraqi tradition of living in harmony with nature.”
Alwash says that the national park designation is critical: “Declaring a park isn’t just a bit of paper,” he explained. “It will mean we can reserve a percentage of the water from the rivers for the marshes.” Alwash and his organization say the marsh’s long-term protection depends on international agreements on water-sharing, and on financial resources, which could come from eco-tourism.
Nature Iraq hopes to build on their success in achieving national park status for the Mesopotamian Marshes by pressing for establishment of four additional parks across Iraq in the coming year. Alwash and his organization are currently working to organize a ‘Tigris River Flotilla,’ a landmark journey down the Tigris River using traditional vessels in order to celebrate the rich culture and ecology of the Tigris River, and to document and bring awareness to the threats facing the timeless waters. As Nature Iraq puts it, “water knows no boundaries.”
“It is now the duty of the world” to protect the future of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, says Azzam Alwash, who became a global citizen in the post-Hussein Iraqi diaspora. As Alwash joined with local communities to put the marshlands on the path back to ecological health, people and governments around the world must join with Alwash to protect the marshes, whose international environmental and cultural importance are beyond dispute.
The work is dangerous. “Conflict conservation” in this part of the world means harnessing people’s passions to reconnect with an ancient ecosystem and its culture in the midst of ongoing political and military upheaval. Activists are working in Mosul, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, to find camping places and check on the security situation prior to the flotilla’s arrival. The event is generating intense excitement, as it rekindles interest in centuries-old arts of traditional Iraqi and Turkish boatbuilding. Only a few people remain who have mastered the skills involving in building and maintaining the traditional taradas, and those skills are only transferred orally. Flotilla leaders have found a master boatbuilder in Basra who built them a 10-meter tarada, a beautiful, ancient vessel that glides perfectly through the marshland waters. Thanks to the work of the Tigris River Flotilla, for the first time in 50 years, sheikhs of the Mesopotamian Marshlands will travel in a tarada.
So many struggles to protect the natural world are seen narrowly through the lens of nationalities and nationalism. And then one reads of efforts like that of Nature Iraq and Waterkeepers Iraq, and it becomes crystal clear that without concerted effort and support on a regional and global scale, the tiger and the humpback whale will become extinct, the Mesopotamian Marshes will dry up and disappear, taradas will cease to ply the Mesopotamian marshes, and the climate will heat to a point that the significance of the fate of the tiger, the humpback whale, and the marshes will dwindle to a vanishing point beside the wholesale planetary environmental apocalypse that humankind will wreak. In these local actions are messages of tremendous hope, but only if support on an international scale arrives before the waters run dry.
About Azzam Alwash
As a young boy growing up in Iraq, Azzam Alwash spent many days out in the marshes. His father, head of the irrigation department in the area, took his son on many trips into the field. The young Azzam remembers looking over the side of his father’s boat into clear water filled with large fish. But not long after Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, Alwash moved to the United States to escape persecution. There he attended school, earned advanced degrees, and established a successful career as a civil engineer. He settled in a Los Angeles suburb, marrying an American woman and fathering two daughters. In the early 1990s, from half a world away, he read about the destruction of the marshes with shock and disbelief.
When Hussein fell, Alwash made the difficult decision to leave his life in California and return to war-torn Iraq, hoping that he might help to restore the marshes he had loved as a child, and that one day, his own daughters might see them in their former glory. In 2004, a year after Hussein’s ouster, Alwash created the nonprofit Nature Iraq, and put to work his experience in hydraulic engineering. After surveying the region and developing a master plan for restoration of the marshes, Alwash met with officials of the Iraqi environment and water resource ministries to educate them about the social, economic, and environmental benefits of restoring the marshes.
The work was politically challenging and physically dangerous. But undaunted by obstacles, Alwash’s efforts, joined to those of local communities, have borne fruit in the re-flooding of more than half of the marshlands, and their designation in late July 2013 as the country’s first national park. His work seems only to have begun. Alwash is now fighting a new threat in the form of 23 dams upstream along the Turkey-Syria border, which, if completed, could reduce the flow of water into Iraq to a trickle. He is currently organizing a flotilla tour to call global attention to the threat of water-based conflicts in the Middle East.
Author: Jennifer Scarlott.