The changing landscape of the Marshlands of Iraq
Iraq is constantly in the news and as a case study it could perfectly illustrate complex geographical issues of conflict geography. However there is more geography to Iraq than the recent war and instability in the region. It was once home to the world’s third largest wetland which was double the size of the Florida Everglades. The Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq were so lush and fertile that they were considered to be the inspiration for the biblical Garden of Eden. Today, however it is a different story.
Under Saddam Hussein’s regime the wetlands were reduced to less than 10% of their original area with catastrophic human, environmental and ecological impacts on the region. Since the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003 the marshlands have experienced a revival as a result of the combined actions of locals, Nature Iraq (an NGO), the Iraq government and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). At the peak of this revival in 2007 the wetland area had been restored to around half of its original area, a remarkable achievement considering the on-going instability in the region.
Despite the initial success, recent studies show that the area is experiencing a ‘second drying’ as a result of human and physical factors. This article seeks to explore the causes and consequences of the changes in this wetland ecosystem of global importance.
Where are the Mesopotamian Marshes?
What were the causes of decline?
What were the environmental impacts?
What were the human impacts?
Have the marshes been restored?
Practice A level questions
The Mesopotamian Marshes are found at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates which are the two main rivers of Iraq flowing from Turkey and Syria in the northwest to the Persian Gulf in the south east of the country. No major tributaries flow into the Euphrates within Iraq and the four tributaries that flow into the Tigris have their sources in the Turkish and Iranian mountains. The rivers converge in the south east of Iraq to the north of Basra.
This south eastern region is very flat and the alluvial plains created covered around 25% of Iraq’s land area. Annual flooding in the region varies from 1.5 to 3 metres, and in ‘normal’ years the land between Basra and Nasiriya would be continuous marshland in the height of the spring floods (See image for historical extent of marshlands). During the dry season numerous lakes and waterways remained in place providing a vital source of freshwater in an otherwise desert landscape.
The Mesopotamian Marshes were the world’s third largest wetland habitat; rich in biodiversity, ecological and cultural value until as recently as the 1980s. Some describe Saddam Hussein’s draining of the marshes as one of the most infamous outrages of his regime (Guardian, 09 July 2010). During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the eastern marshes were a region of heavy fighting and many people fled the area. The marshes are difficult to police and had been home to rebels and bandits. After the first Gulf War in 1991 and the Shia uprising in Iraq, the guerrillas that briefly captured Nasiriya came from the marshes and fled back to them when they were defeated. Marsh Arabs were considered supporters of the political uprising. Initially the army attacked and destroyed marsh villages killing thousands of people and their livestock, and waterways were poisoned (Der Spiegel magazine, 08 March 2010). Hussein’s longer term plan to punish and control the Marsh Arabs was to destroy the marshes on which their lives depended. Canals and waterways were constructed to divert water away from the marshes and the newly drained land was given to Hussein supporters and converted to agricultural land (Independent, 24 April 2009). The 4000km of 7metre high walls used to divert the water, along with dams upstream, had a devastating effect on the region. Within months the marshes shrank to an estimated 5-10% of their original size by 2000 (UNEP report, 2004).
The UNEP described the drying of the marshes as "the worst engineered environmental disaster of the last century". When conservationists could access the marsh area after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 it was described as a ‘salt-encrusted desert, emptied of insects, birds and people’ (Guardian, 09 July 2010).
The channelization of waterways and upstream dams completely changed the river regime of the area. Flooding no longer occurred and as result accumulated salt deposits are not flushed out and replaced with fresh minerals annually making the area and soils more saline. (BBC Earth News, 18 January 2011). Further salinization occurred from increased evaporation rates which leave salt deposits and much of the agricultural land became infertile resulting in increased use of fertilisers. The loss of vegetation meant that pollutants were not filtered naturally and any freshwater supplies became polluted. Without the floods the surrounding desert enveloped the marsh area and extensive desertification occurred at great speed.
The loss of freshwater supply meant that vegetation and therefore habitats were destroyed on a large scale and wildlife populations collapsed. Many endemic species such as the Basra Reed Warbler were thought to have been completely lost. There certainly been a fall in biodiversity and volume of species; the Marbled Teal bird is now considered to be endangered (BBC Earth News, 18 January 2011).
Hussein’s plan to punish the Marsh Arabs worked. The region was once home to 300,000 people but during the 1980s Iran-Iraq conflict and the 1990s draining many fled the region which could no longer support them. Prior to the drying the Marsh people led a sustainable lifestyle working with the natural cycles of the marshes. Once dried the infertile soils and lack of resources for humans and livestock forced people to move out of the region they had lived in for 5000 years. In urban areas these people were among the poorest in Iraq and vulnerable; the majority ended up in the shanty towns of Basra, Nasiriya and Baghdad where they quickly gained a reputation for criminality and violence (Independent, 24 April 2009).
Many fled across the border into refugee camps in Iran and it was estimated that up to half a million people had been displaced (Der Spiegel magazine, 08 March 2010).
The economic decline of the region was significant. The once prolific fisheries of the lower marshland region which harvested 30000 tonnes a year during the 1960s are redundant today.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, restoration of the marshes has been a rare success story for the Iraqi government. Efforts to re-establish the wetlands has occurred with action at a range of scales;
the local Marsh Arabs,
Nature Iraq and Birdlife International non- governmental organisations (NGO’s),
the national Iraqi government
the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with funding from the World bank and the international community
Nature Iraq is at the forefront of the restoration. It is an NGO set up Azzam Alwash who returned to Iraq post 2003 with the aim of restoring the marshes. It has not been an easy job; instability in the region means that conservationists go to work with armed guards (NATURE, November 2010). Conservationists were surprised by the speed of the marshland recovery; locals had destroyed 98% of the canal system constructed by Hussein, they were desperate to regain some productivity from the marshes that they could use for economic gain (Guardian, 09 July 2010). Although the work has been carried out on a local scale, they have also received international support. Birdlife International trained biologists and hydrologists for Nature Iraq. The UNEP "support for Environmental Management of the Iraqi Marshland" began in 2004 to support the sustainable management and restoration of the marshes by enabling strategies to be formulated by Iraqi decision makers and the marshes to be monitored (UNEP website, 2011).
Local action combined with the efforts of Nature Iraq which had the support of the Iraq government and UNEP meant that in 2007 the between 50-60% of the marshes had been at least partly restored. Bird populations were increasing and anecdotal evidence suggests that species such as the rare Basra Reed Warbler are making a comeback (BBC Earth News, 18 January 2011). The efficiency and nutrient cycling of wetland ecosystems has enabled this revival and in 2006 it was suggested that the 75% of the 1973 marsh area could potentially be restored (EARTH magazine, 15 April 2009). However despite the initial success restoration has been patchy and the region is suffering once again (BBC Earth News, 18 January 2011).
As if the marshes had not suffered enough, in a cruel twist of fate, just as the marshes were being revived they have been hit by a combination of prolonged and severe drought and increasing demand for water supplies up stream. As a result the area of marshland is reducing in size once again. At its peak in 2007 an estimates of between 50% and 60% had been restored but by 2011 this estimate had fallen to 30% (BBC Earth News, 18 January 2011). Some areas look like they have been revived but there is only 1 foot of water where there should be 4 foot, putting a strain on resources (NPR, 09 March 2009).
Average annual rainfall is down by 50% across Iraq and the reduced snowfall in the mountains means that the summer melt waters that feed the marshes are depleted. In the Nassiriyah region, river discharge has fallen from 250 cubic metres per second (cumecs) in March 2007 to just 42 cumecs (Independent, 24 April 2009).
The impacts of the drought are exacerbated by the extraction of water from the Tigris and Euphrates both upstream in Iraq and across the borders in Syria and Turkey. The Anatolia Irrigation project is a series of 22 dams in Turkey and on completion it is estimated that flow of water into Iraq will be less than 50% of what it has been previously (Earth Magazine, 15 April 2009). The dam and reservoir systems in Syria and northern Iraq are further depleting the supply of water to the marshes as they extract water to cope with impacts of the current drought. This and the ever increasing demands from agriculture, industry and population do not bode well for the future of the marshes. The marshes have experienced periods of prolonged drought before and have survived, however this time the threat seems greater as much of it is human induced. With the increasing threats from global warming droughts are likely to increase in their frequency and intensity. It is not only the volume of water which is a problem but the quality of it too. This has deteriorated as two-thirds of the waste water and sewage from Baghdad goes untreated into the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as pollution from pesticides and industrial waste.
The devastating impacts are being felt for a second time with Marsh Arabs struggling to make a living and being forced to abandon their traditional way of life, and wildlife and vegetation numbers are dwindling as the ecosystem struggles to maintain its productivity.
What does the future hold?
The organisations involved in managing the restoration of the marshes have had to respond to this second drying. Nature Iraq has co-ordinated the response. As a short term solution a large embankment has been built across the Euphrates to artificially raise the water level and rehydrate a large area of the Central Marshes. In the longer term a more complicated water network will redistribute water to a wider area, as long as there is the supply (BBC Earthnews, 18 January 2011). The Master Plan for Water Resources Management in Southern Iraq is co-ordinated by the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources and is supported by Nature Iraq and UNEP. This plan has a lot to live up to in very difficult circumstances; the management of water in Iraq is complex with increasing demands and a falling supply.
In the future Azzam Alwash from Nature Iraq would like to see the area protected with National Park Status partly for conservation and partly to generate income from tourism to improve the economic viability of the marshes (NATURE, November 2010). The restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes is a long term project which is dependent on a sustainable water supply. With so many players involved, the management of the marshes will have to balance human and environmental factors, a difficult task in a region prone to instability and conflict.
Evaluate the influence of the factors that create the unique characteristics of one or more local ecosystems/ environments.
Assess the degree to which human activity has unintended consequences for a local ecosystem.
With reference to one example, assess the success of ecological conservation.
Using named examples, assess the role of different players and decision makers in trying to secure a sustainable ‘water future’.
Using named examples, assess the potential for water supply to become a source of conflict.
[tip:] The term, assess, means it is an evaluative question with a number of possible arguments or explanations. You need to show you have considered them before deciding and explaining which point you favour.
When evaluating, include discussion of the strengths and weaknesses before reaching you conclusion.
Paradise found: Water and life return to Iraq’s ‘Garden of Eden’. Guardian, 09 July 2010
Restoring the paradise that Saddam destroyed. Der Spiegel online, 08 March 2009
Martyrs of the Iraqi Marshes. Independent, 24 April 2009
Restoring Iraq’s wetlands to the original Eden. BBC Earth News, 18 January 2011
Lack of water threatens ‘Garden of Eden’. EARTH magazine, 15 April 2009
Iraq's Marshlands Face A Second Death By Drought. NPR, 09 March 2009
Braving Iraq. Collection of interviews and film available online from NATURE, November 2010
Video clip: Attempts to save Iraq’s marshes from the desert. BBC 18 January 2011
Nature Iraq NGO website
BBC Clips from TV documentary Miracle in the Marshes
Miracle in the marshes of Iraq. Birdlife International NGO 17 January 2011
Provides goods including:
Food supplies; 1960s the Lower marshland fisheries harvested 30000 tonnes
Reeds for livestock, primarily water buffalos,
Freshwater supply in a drought prone region
Home to over 300000 people who live a semi-aquatic existence on artificial islands
Provides services including:
Migration region Africa to Europe
Supports wide biodiversity including endemic species- Basra reed warbler, Marbled teal (regional)
Important area for breeding water fowl and wintering birds of prey
Fertile soils on fringes of marshland which flood annually
Water purification because wetlands act as a natural filter
Cultural value: The region is the historic Garden of Eden and ruined cities such as Babylon are within the area. Evidence of well established civilisations and Marsh Arabs have lived here for at least 5000 years.
Recreational value: potentially this area could attract tourism on a larger scale due to its biological and aesthetic qualities.
Biodiversity- The variety of life forms; plants, animals and micro-organisms. Including species diversity, genetic diversity and ecosystem diversity.
Ecosystem- a dynamic system characterised by the interaction of plants and animals with each other and the non-living components of the environment.
Endemic species - a species which is unique to one place or region.
Wetland ecosystem- The term "wetland" refers to ecosystems dominated bywater-loving plants and having wet or saturated soils. The term "riparian" refers to any land adjacent to water bodies or wetlands. These may be upland sites or periodically flooded ecosystems.
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