Mesopotamian Marshes: Cradle of Iraqi ecosystem faces decay

Marsh Arab villages of woven reed houses on small islands dot the landscape where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet at the legendary site of the Garden of Eden [Getty Images]
15 September, 2021
One of Iraq's most enchanting ecological treasures, the Mesopotamian Marshes, is under severe threat from increased environmental degradation, having endured the wrath of Saddam and now the consequences of climate change.

Compared to the same time five years ago, Iraq has achieved a measure of stability. The Islamic State, though hardly vanquished, remains at a fraction of its former power, and efforts to rebuild cities such as Mosul, Ramadi, and Tikrit continue.

Iraqi authorities are also working to vaccinate their population against COVID-19, having administered over 3 million doses. This period of relative peace offers a chance for Iraq to tackle another challenge: environmental protection. The Mesopotamian Marshes in particular will benefit from greater attention.

The Mesopotamian Marshes, located in the southeast of Iraq and fed by the Euphrates and the Tigris, host thousands of Iraqis. Known as “the Madan” or “the Marsh Arabs,” the region’s inhabitants have called the Mesopotamian Marshes home for over 5,000 years by some estimates. Until the Madan started migrating to urban areas in large numbers in the 1950s, the wetlands sustained livelihoods such as agriculture, fishing, and handcrafting.

"The Mesopotamian Marshes have obvious relevance to environmental protection in Iraq, but their status as a cradle of civilization means that they have ties to humanity as a whole"

In addition to the Mesopotamian Marshes’ importance to Iraq’s cultural heritage, the region teems with wildlife and underpins the natural environment in the country. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known as “UNESCO,” labelled the Mesopotamian Marshes a “refuge of biodiversity” when the international organization added the location to its “world heritage list” in 2016. UNESCO called the Mesopotamian Marshes “unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment.”

Despite the cultural and ecological significance of Iraq’s wetlands, the Mesopotamian Marshes have suffered the worst effects of environmental degradation in recent decades.

The region’s most notorious environmental disaster came in the 1990s when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein drained much of the Mesopotamian Marshes to flush out rebels there. His campaign forced hundreds of thousands of Madan to flee, leaving an estimated 20,000 in the area.

People and boat on river on edge of traditional Marsh Arab village of reed houses in the wetlands of Southern Iraq circa 1978 [Getty Images]
People and boat on the river on edge of traditional Marsh Arab village of reed houses in the wetlands of Southern Iraq circa 1978 [Getty Images]

Even before Hussein employed ecocide and ethnic cleansing against his opponents, the Mesopotamian Marshes were struggling. As far back as the 1950s, developers were razing wetlands to combat the spread of mosquitoes, facilitate agriculture, and tap oil reserves hidden in the Mesopotamian Marshes.

By 2000, habitat destruction had left the region’s vulnerable ecosystems at under a tenth of their original size. Many Madan returned to the Mesopotamian Marshes after Hussein’s downfall in 2003 only to find the region a ghost of its former self.

Climate change has further complicated the picture for the Mesopotamian Marshes. A 2019 article published by Iraqi scientists in the academic journal Applied Sciences concluded, “The marshes were influenced by climatic change, including rising temperature and the diminishing amount of precipitation during 1981-2016.” The study’s authors noted “the degradation of vegetation and water bodies” and the disappearance of “vast areas of natural vegetation.”

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Iraq has made some attempts to restore the Mesopotamian Marshes. A video published by the NASA Earth Observatory shows the wetlands’ uneven recovery between 2000 and 2010 as Iraqis dismantled dams and other obstacles that hindered the flow of water to the region; a combination of droughts and ongoing human development limited the effectiveness of these endeavours. The environmental organisation Nature Iraq has also worked to improve conditions in the Mesopotamian Marshes in cooperation with the Madan who still live in the area.

The Mesopotamian Marshes’ 2016 UNESCO designation raised hopes among the Madan that greater recognition from the international community might spur efforts to secure the future of the ecosystem. “Marshes and more water mean life,” Hamza Mohamed, an Iraqi herder of buffalo native to the wetlands, told the UN Environmental Programme following UNESCO’s announcement. “We hope that the World Heritage status can help us rebuild our land.”

"The Mesopotamian Marshes, located in the southeast of Iraq and fed by the Euphrates and the Tigris, host thousands of Iraqis. Known as “the Madan” or “the Marsh Arabs,” the region’s inhabitants have called the Mesopotamian Marshes home for over 5,000 years by some estimates"

At the time of Mohamed’s comments to the UN about environmental restoration, Iraq was dealing with a much more immediate concern: a war against militants who, at one point, controlled a third of the country.

Now that Iraqi officials have more resources to devote to planning for the long term, Iraq can develop a comprehensive plan for the preservation of its wetlands. While the means and reach of the country’s central government remain limited, Iraq will likely find eager allies in the environmental movement and the international community.

The Mesopotamian Marshes have obvious relevance to environmental protection in Iraq, but their status as a cradle of civilization means that they have ties to humanity as a whole. The region contains the archaeological sites of Eridu, Ur, and Uruk, offering insight into Sumer and Babylonia – two of the earliest complex societies in recorded history. Saving these historic sites and the Mesopotamian Marshes will require a concerted effort from the international community.

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So far, the UN has spearheaded the international community’s work to return the Mesopotamian Marshes to their former glory. Last year, the UN partnered with the European Union to fund an initiative promoting ecotourism in the wetlands, a project meant to encourage economic development in the region without compromising environmental health. The United States Agency for International Development, which often goes by “USAID,” has also financed environmental impact assessments and supported environmental restoration in the region.

As long as the uneasy calm in Iraq persists, aid agencies and their Iraqi allies have an unparalleled opportunity to advance environmental protection by investing in the future of the Mesopotamian Marshes.

To rescue Iraq’s wetlands, though, the international community will have to scale up its assistance. The Mesopotamian Marshes need all the help that they can get.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired