The Mesopotamian Marshes of Southern Iraq

Mesopotamian Marshlands -- UNEP/Eden AgainWhen people think of Iraq, they often think of desert. Iraq, however, has a surprising diversity of natural habitats, varying from dry forest in the northeastern mountains to the Mesopotamian marshlands of southern Iraq. Because people have thought of Iraq as a desert, they are likewise surprised to find out that there are actually marshlands in Iraq. Indeed there are, and they are extensive. The Mesopotamian marshlands are the largest wetlands in the Middle East, covering over 7500 square miles - an area larger than the Florida Everglades. The Marshes lie at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in a region that is so flat that the flow of the two rivers spreads out across the Mesopotamian plain in a broad expanse of distributaries, interconnected lakes, temporary mudflats, and wetlands.

Or, one could say, they were the largest wetlands in the Middle East. Today, the southern Iraqi marshes have almost entirely disappeared. In an act of wanton destruction that environmental groups compare with the devastation of the Amazon rainforests or the drying of the Aral Sea, the Iraqi regime has been deliberately draining the Marshes since the late 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, and at an accelerated pace since 1991. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the marshes drained in the early 1990s as a way to drive out Shi'a opposition groups in southern Iraq and gain greater political control of the people in the area. By diverting the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates away from the Marshes through a series of dikes and canals, the regime has turned over 90% of the Marshes into a salt-encrusted wasteland in less than a decade. Environmentalists are still puzzling over exactly how the Iraqi government was able to drain such a large area in such a short time. Equally astonishing is how the international community remained so unaware of this environmental destruction occurring on such a vast scale.

The environmental effects in the region have been profound. According to a 2001 United Nations Environmental Programme report by Hassan Paltrow, the destruction of the Marshes has resulted in

Accompanying this environmental destruction is a profound human-rights catastrophe-the destruction of the homeland of the indigenous Ma'dan people, also called the Marsh Arabs. The Ma'dan culture lived in near-harmony with the environment of the Marshes for 5000 years, constructing homes and larger meeting houses in an arabesque style from large bundles of the tall reeds that dominate the environment of the Marshes, and making their living through fishing, raising water buffalo, making mats and furniture from reeds, and, in some areas, cultivating rice. But no longer. The Iraqi regime's destruction of the Marshes has driven over 250,000 of the Ma'dan and other Shi'a people from the area. Many live today in refugee camps in southwestern Iran, whereas others have fled to other parts of Iraq or to other countries. Marshland drainage was not the only reason they fled. The Iraqi leadership also launched military campaigns against the Shi'a, which included poisoning water in the marshes, mining waterways, burning large expanses of reeds, and launching chemical-weapons attacks.

In the words of the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, "The destruction of the Marshlands of Lower Mesopotamia - the home of a civilization that goes back millennia - is now almost complete. It is an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe of monumental proportions with regional and global implications."

What is being done to save the Marshes?

For some time, there have been efforts to develop plans to restore the Mesopotamian marshes and return the Ma'dan people to their ancestral homes. There are now two major projects to restore the Marshes. The first to start working was AMAR (Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees), which is helping the Ma'dan people to survive in the refugee camps in Iran, and has also done a considerable amount of research on the ecology and hydrology of the Marshes from the scientific literature. The second project, Eden Again, is a more recently initiated program sponsored by the Iraq Foundation and the U.S. Department of State to develop a viable plan to restore the Marshes. The Eden Again Project, led by project directors Dr. Azzam and Dr. Suzanne Alwash, and project manager Michelle Stevens, is developing a hydrological model to determine how much water will be needed to restore the marshlands, how to reintroduce the ecologically important springtime flood pulse, and how best to wash out accumulated salts and pollutants. Project members are also examining remote sensing data from satellite photos to define habitat types within the marshlands, and are compiling a list of focal plant and animal species that can serve as biological indicators of successful habitat restoration. Eden Again is also working with representatives of the Ma'dan people to find out what they need in order for them to eventually return to their homes in the Marshes. According to Dr. Stevens, the two projects, AMAR and Eden Again, have been working together to come up with a comprehensive plan to restore the Marshes. Whereas AMAR tends to emphasize human needs more strongly, Eden Again is more focused on restoring the environment of the Marshes. There is, however, considerable overlap between the efforts of the two projects, which gives both the potential to devise a truly comprehensive program to restore the Mesopotamian marshlands to their former splendor.

Additional Pages on Our Site

Geography and ecoregions of Iraq

Saddam Hussein's Destruction of the Mesopotamian Marshes

Marshes Reference List

Public Statements about the Mesopotamian Marshes

Political Commentary on Iraq

This page was created on March 20, 2003.