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Reviving the Marshlands

Reviving the Marshlands

Issue 86 November 2011

The six thousand year old Cradle of Civilisation of the Mesopotamian Marshlands were almost destroyed within 50 years. Khadija Gulamhusein explores the revival of the historic marshes.


Over six thousand years ago the first literate societies emerged in Southern Mesopotamia, the area where Prophet Abraham is said to have been from. Often referred to as the Cradle of Civilisation; writing, the first cities, and complex state systems were all said to have emerged from this area. This civilisational development was able to materialise because of the geographical location and the ecology of the fertile nature of the land.

The Marsh Arabs—descendants of Ancient Sumerians—have lived in secluded villages of elaborate reed houses around the Mesopotamian Marshes for millennia. Yet since the 1950s the Marshes have been drained to reclaim land for agriculture and oil exploration; they have been hit by dam construction in Iraq, Syria and Turkey; and they were also drained by Saddam Hussein to punish those who took part in the 1991 uprisings in Iraq. In just 50 years the population around the Marshes shrank from 500,000 to 20,000; and the total marshland from almost 20,000 km² to 1,500 km².

Aware of this, Dr Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi engineer, decided to return to his native Iraq from America, and established Nature Iraq to restore what he termed the “magical waterworld.” Dr Alwash firmly believed that there was a dialectic relationship between Iraq’s social and political problems, and the issues afflicting the environment; solving one, he believed, would help solve the other. “If we can restore the Marshes, then we can restore Iraq. What we’ve learned is that the people and the environment are interconnected here. What’s good for the environment is good for the people; what’s good for the people is good for the environment. They are not separate.”

The Mesopotamian Marshlands, one of the most biodiverse wetland eco-systems in western Eurasia, were once an oasis in an area surrounded by deserts. The Marshlands were a particularly crucial watering area for birds who were migrating between Eurasia and Africa, and their destruction resulted in a sharp decline in bird populations.

Since the establishment of Nature Iraq, large swathes of the Marshlands have been restored and biodiversity has begun to flourish again. For example, the Vulnerable Marbled Teal, a bird-type, which previously had not been seen in the marshes for 20 years, was estimated to number 46,000 in the winter of 2010.

All, however, is not well. Although by 2007, over 50% of the marshland had been renewed; this figure has now dropped by nearly 20%. The existence of upstream dams have resulted in the marshes becoming more saline, and adversely affected the ecology of the area. But a short-term solution to prevent the situation from progressing is already being implemented. Across the Euphrates, a large dam is being constructed which should raise the level of the river and in turn flood a large part of the Central Marshes. Simultaneously, Nature Iraq is working towards a long-term solution, which will see one of Saddam’s drainage canals shut down, and in turn ensure a steady supply of water to the Central Marshes.

In addition to working towards restoring the Marshes, Nature Iraq also works on a political, grassroots, and practical level to promote environmental sustainability. In its drive to raise awareness and promote stewardship of the environment, the organisation runs a number of community-based environmental centres, and develops education programmes on the environment. It also administers eco-tourism, which looks to create ecologically sustainable tourism activities in Iraq. By bringing much needed economic growth to rural areas, these projects focus on sustainable development, and preserving environmental, cultural, and rural values.

On a practical level, Nature Iraq has been developing a database of environmental conditions and trends; focussing on water resources, ecology, and biodiversity. The aim has been to identify ecological sites, which are important for their biological diversity, so that the appropriate advocacy for their protection can be made.

For the first time in over three decades, Nature Iraq has been able to address the issue of the environment in a meaningful way. Although, the situation in Iraq means they work under extremely insecure conditions, their belief that “a healthy and sustainable Iraq is the only option” drives their work. With plans to create a series of waterkeeper programmes, perhaps even expanding to Turkey, Iran and Syria to create a regional Waterkeeper Network, one cannot but admire their determination. But as Dr Alwash says, “If I am going to dream, I am going to dream Big. It’s free!”

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