Surviving, but Hardly Thriving

Water Has Returned to Iraq's Marshes, but Their Revival Remains in Doubt

Iraq's southern marshlands -- drained by Saddam Hussein, who thought it was a refuge for many of his enemies -- were given a lifeline when the U.S. invaded in 2003. But drought, pollution and disputes with Iraq's neighbors are once again threatening the future of marshland communities.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 24, 2009

CHIBAISH, Iraq -- Water has begun flowing again through southern Iraq's fabled marshes, a vast reservoir in this arid region that had all but vanished by the time the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 gave it a lifeline.

But six years later, the revival of the marshes, which some believe to be the site of the original Garden of Eden, remains uncertain.

A prolonged drought and disputes between Iraq and two of its neighbors, Syria and Turkey, over the diversion of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have hampered the Iraqi government's $150 million effort to restore the marshlands.

The number of fish -- long central to the diet of Marsh Arabs, who have inhabited this area for millennia -- has decreased so sharply in recent years that residents must now import them from Iran.

Pollution and the high salinity of the water have sickened the water buffalo, another pillar of the 5,300-square-mile area's livelihood.

But as water has returned, small communities of Marsh Arabs have once again begun to build houses made of reed and glide through narrow canals in dugout canoes.

"This is the story of the phoenix rising from the ashes," said Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi American who runs Nature Iraq, an organization dedicated to the restoration of the marshes. "It is one of the few instances where war improved environmental conditions."

For centuries, water gushed every spring from snowcapped mountains in northern Iraq's Kurdish region, replenishing the marshes. At their peak, in the 1970s, the wetlands were home to an estimated 300,000 people living in about 60 villages.

They had little contact with the outside world, and through much of the 20th century, during periods of British and Iraqi rule, they received little attention from any government. Wetlands were seen as incubators of disease, and many Iraqis argued that the marshes ought to be dried up and turned into farms.

Their demise began in the late 1970s, as Iraqi and French officials dredged portions to extract oil. The decline accelerated a few years later, during the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, because the wetlands, which straddle the two countries, became a central battleground. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein drained some portions to bury land mines and flooded others to stall the advance of Iranian tanks. The war triggered large-scale displacement from the marshlands, as thousands of men were drafted into the army and families sought refuge in Iran.

But the breaking point came after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Saddled by U.N. sanctions and threatened by Shiite rebels in the south and Kurds in the north, Hussein, a Sunni Arab, made eradication of the wetlands a top priority. Because Shiite rebels hid in the marshes, Hussein built a complex system of canals and embankments to halt the flow of water.

"He killed everything," said Jassim al-Asadi, Nature Iraq's manager in Chibaish, the main city in the marshlands.

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