Return to the Marsh

The effort to restore the Marsh Arabs’ traditional way of life in southern Iraq—virtually eradicated by Saddam Hussein —faces new threats.

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Al Huwitha's biggest problem stems from an unresolved tribal feud that goes back 15 years. The people of the village belong to a tribe that sheltered and fed the Shiite rebels just after the gulf war. In the summer of 1991, some 2,500 members of a rival tribe from Basra and wetlands to the north showed Saddam's Republican Guards where the Al Huwitha men were hiding. The Guards killed many of them, a British intelligence officer told me, and there’s been bad blood between the two groups ever since. "Al Huwitha's men can't even move down the road toward Basra for fear of the enemy group," the officer went on. "Their women and children are allowed to pass to sell fish, buffalo cheese, and milk in Basra markets. But the men have been stuck in their village for years." In 2005, a furious battle between the two tribes erupted over a love affair—"a Romeo and Juliet story," the officer added. The fighting lasted for days, with both sides firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and heavy machine guns at each other. The officer asked the sheik of Al Huwitha "if there was any chance of a truce, and he said, 'This truce will happen only when one side or the other side is dead.'"

The violence among Shiite groups in and around Basra has escalated sharply in recent months. In June Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a state of emergency and sent several thousand troops to the area to restore order. In August supporters of an assassinated Shiite tribal leader lobbed mortar rounds at bridges and laid siege to the governor's office to demand that he arrest their leader's killers.

Driving back toward Basra, we passed a settlement being built on a patch of wasteland within sight of the airport's control tower. The settlers, Marsh Arabs all, had abandoned their wetlands homes two months earlier and were constructing squat, ugly houses out of concrete blocks and corrugated tin. According to my British escorts, the part of the marshes where they had lived is owned by sayeds, descendants of the prophet Muhammad, who forbade them from building "permanent structures," only traditional reed houses. This was unacceptable, and several hundred Marsh Arabs had picked up and moved to this bone-dry patch. It is a sign of the times: despite reconstruction of a few mudheefs, and some Marsh Arabs who say they would like to return to the old ways, the halcyon portrait of Marsh Arab life drawn by Wilfred Thesiger half a century ago has probably disappeared forever. The British officer told me he had asked the settlers why they didn't want to live in reed huts and live off the land. "They all say they don't want it," the officer said. "They want sophistication. They want to join the world." Ole Stokholm Jepsen, the Danish agronomist advising the Iraqis, agreed. "We will have to accept that the Marsh Arabs want to live with modern facilities and do business. This is the reality."

Another reality is that the marshes will almost certainly never recover completely. In earlier times, the Tigris and Euphrates, overflowing with snowmelt from the Turkish mountains, spilled over their banks with seasonal regularity. The floods flushed out the brackish water and rejuvenated the environment. "The timing of the flooding is vital to the health of the marshes," says Azzam Alwash. "You need fresh water flowing in when the fishes are spawning, the birds are migrating, the reeds are coming out of their winter dormancy. It creates a symphony of biodiversity."

But these days, the symphony has dwindled to a few discordant notes. Over the past two decades, Turkey has constructed 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the Euphrates and Tigris and their tributaries, siphoning off water before it ever crosses Iraq's northern border. Before 1990, Iraq got more than three trillion cubic feet of water a year; today it's less than two trillion. The Central and Hammar marshes, which are dependent upon the heavily dammed Euphrates, get only 350 billion cubic feet—down from 1.4 trillion a generation ago. As a result, only 9 percent of Al Hammar and 18 percent of the Central Marsh have been replenished, says Samira Abed, secretary general of the Center for Restoration of the Iraqi Marshes, a division of Iraq's Water Resources Ministry. "They are both still in a very poor state." (The Al Hawizeh Marsh, which extends to Iran and receives its water from the Tigris, has recovered 90 percent of its pre-1980 area.)

Linda Allen, an American who serves as senior consultant to the Iraqi Ministry of Water, told me that getting more water from Turkey is essential, but despite "keen interest among Iraqis" to strike a deal, "there is no formal agreement about the allocation and use of the Tigris and Euphrates." Iraq and Turkey stopped meeting in 1992. They met once earlier this year, but meanwhile the Turks are building more upstream dams.

Azzam Alwash believes that intransigence on both sides dooms any negotiations. His group, Nature Iraq, is promoting an alternative that, he claims, could restore the marshes to something like full health with three billion cubic meters of additional water per year. The group calls for constructing movable gates on Euphrates and Tigris tributaries to create an "artificial pulse" of floodwater. In late winter, when Iraq's reservoirs are allowed to flow into the Persian Gulf in anticipation of the annual snowmelt, gates at the far end of the Central and Al Hammar marshes would slam shut, trapping the water and rejuvenating a wide area. After two months, the gates would reopen. Though the plan would not exactly replicate the natural ebb and flow of floodwaters of a generation ago, "if we manage it well," Alwash says, "we can recover 75 percent of the marshes." He says that the Iraqi government will need between $75 million and $100 million to build the gates. "We can do this," he adds. "Bringing back the marshes is hugely symbolic, and the Iraqis recognize that."

For the moment, however, Alwash and other marshlands environmentalists are setting their sights lower. In the past three years, Nature Iraq has spent $12 million in Italian and Canadian government funds to monitor salinity levels of marsh water and to compare "robust recovery" areas with those in which fish and vegetation have not thrived. Jepsen, working with the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry, is running fisheries, water-buffalo breeding programs and water-purification schemes: both agriculture and water quality, he says, have improved since Saddam fell. In addition, he says, the "maximum temperatures during the summer have been significantly reduced" across Basra Province.

Sitting in his office in Saddam's former Basra palace, Jepsen recalls his first year—2003—in Iraq wistfully. In those days, he says, he could climb into his four-by-four and venture deep into the marshes with only an interpreter, observing the recovery without fear. "During the last six months, the work has grown extremely difficult," he says. "I travel only with the military or a personal security detail. I am not here to run a risk on my life." He says discontent among the Marsh Arabs is also rising: "In the days after reflooding, they were so happy. But that euphoria has worn off. They are demanding improvements in their lives; the government will have to meet that challenge."

In the marshlands, as in so much of this tortured, violent country, liberation proved to be the easy part.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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