Restoring the Marshes of Mesopotamia

by Azzam Alwash with Suzanne Alwash

I discovered the Mesopotamian marshes as a boy when my father, an
irrigation engineer for Iraq, took me on a motorboat that puttered between
reeds towering tall overhead. The air was perfectly still, thick with a
dank algal smell and the buzz of flies. It was blazingly hot. Suddenly, we
emerged onto an open lake, blown by a crisp breeze, where the whole world
was dazzling blue and green and brown. In the clearing was a village where
each house was its own island, built from centuries-old accumulations of
reeds and mud. We brought the boat to the largest island, disembarked and
were greeted warmly and loudly by the villagers. They grandly showed us to
the guesthouse (know as a mudhif) constructed of bundles of reeds bound
together, where men sat on richly embroidered carpets, arguing and laughing
and tending endless pots of strong black tea. The air inside the mudhif was
blessedly cooler. The villagers insisted we stay for dinner, and I slept in
my father’s lap on the way home, rocking through reed beds under the

Such was my introduction to Iraq’s Marsh Dwellers, a people whose culture
is shaped by their coexistence with the marshlands, and whose cultural
roots extend to the time of the ancient Sumerians. The Mesopotamian marshes
lie within Southern Iraq, along the confluence of the Tigris and the
Euphrates. The Marsh Dwellers live deep within these wetlands, their
villages accessible only by canoes called mashhoofs. Each home is its own
island, and families travel to their villages via the water. They harvest
and feed the sprouting reeds to their water buffalos and use buffalo dung
for fuel. They depend on fishing and hunting, and planting rice, fruits,
vegetables and date palms along the margins of the marshes.

Cuneiform tablets reveal that the Marsh Dwellers have essentially followed
this way of life for the past 5,000 years. Their home is the birthplace of
western civilization, ancient Sumer. The world’s first epic poem,
Gilgamesh, was written here. Tradition holds that this was the site of the
biblical Garden of Eden, sacred to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

In 1988 a half million Marsh Dwellers lived in the marshlands. At the end
of 1991 Sadam Hassein drained, dried and burned the marshes and their
villages. At least 300,000 Marsh Dwellers died, fled or were resettled. By
2000, less than a tenth of the original population remained close to the
Euphrates and the Tigris. A 2001 United Nations Environmental Program
report called "the disappearance of the Mesopotamian marshlands" a major
"environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s
worst engineered disasters."

I shared the report with my wife, an environmental geologist who had fallen
in love with the marshes, and we committed ourselves to seeing the
marshlands restored. We established the Eden Again Project to promote the
restoration of the Mesopotamian marshes. The project seeks not only to
restore the marshes for their own sake, but also for the Marsh Dwellers,
whose culture and lifestyle depend on them. The Iraq Foundation, a
non-governmental organization led by Iraqi expatriates who work to promote
democracy and human rights in Iraq, agreed to sponsor the project. The
project leaders were optimistic and eager to find innovative ways to revive
the marshlands.

The initial evaluations were challenging: a US government scientist told
project leaders that there was too little water left in the rivers to
restore the marshes. A humanitarian group contended that the Marsh Dwellers
would really prefer to live in towns, making the need for restoration less
pressing. Despite the nay-saying, the Eden Project convened a panel of
international experts to serve as technical advisors. The panel decided
that restoration was warranted because the marshes provided environmental
services, ecological functions, economic goods and socio-cultural values:
restoration effects were technically judged feasible and worthwhile.

In the summer of 2003, I returned with a team to the country of my birth.
The marshes were in bad shape. The Central and Hammar Marshes were mile
upon mile of dried, desiccated land. Parched earth was split by foot-deep
cracks. We occasionally found an area that had been recently inundated,
where facility operators and local populations were removing embankments,
disabling pump stations, or opening sluice gates. Already, people had begun
moving back to the re-flooded areas, a powerful sign that Iraqis wanted
their marshes restored.

Eden Again staff advocated on behalf of the marshlands to Iraq’s
government, and the project members celebrated when in October 2003 the new
Minister of Water Resources declared restoration his highest priority.
Italy’s Ministry of the Environment supported a comprehensive survey of
water resource needs in March 2003. The ministry also provided the Iraq
Foundation funding to monitor environmental changes in the re-flooded Abu
Zarag Marsh. The Eden Again Project hired professors and graduate students
from Iraq’s major universities to work with the experts, monitoring
environmental conditions in re-flooded areas. The country has committed two
million euros and has pledged an additional five million euros to our
project. Italian experts and Iraqi scientists are working collaboratively
on restoration: the Italians providing the science of restoration and the
Iraqi providing local knowledge about the marshes. The United Nations
Environmental Program has other roundtable discussions for donor nations.
And they have engaged Iran in discussions of management of its Hawr al-Azim
Marsh. The U.S. provided $4 million in funding and sent of team of experts
to consult on the restoration, agriculture, fish, and water buffalo.
Slowly, this committed effort is beginning to achieve results.

The Iraqi people began efforts to break down embankments as soon as they
could without fear of reprisals. Consequently, the restoration partners are
treating these re-flooded areas as ready-made demonstration projects. One
of these sites is Karmashia, about 15 miles east of Nasiriyah.

I first visited Karmashia in September 2003. Already houses made of mud and
brick lined the riverbanks; the water turned from deep brown to green as
sewage flowed into the river. At the end of the distributary was a security
embankment built by the former regime to provide fast access to the
marshes; satellite images from 2001 suggested that beyond it, we would find
an entirely dried marsh bed. Instead there were thick forests of green
reeds. In a nearby field, people were singing as they harvested rice and
waved to visitors. It was difficult to believe that all this had grown in
only six months, after the local population opened the sluice gates and
allowed the water to flow naturally. Newly constructed reed huts lined the
edge of the embankment, and their inhabitants were herding livestock. These
settlers were not originally from Karmashia, they said, but were from the
Central Marsh; when their marshes were dried they had left to find work as
servants. Now they were returning home, waiting in Karmashia until their
own marshes were restored. Women were collecting dung to burn for fuel, and
men were fishing in canoes. Everywhere there were signs that life in the
marshes was progressing as it had for hundreds of years–except that when
we drove further and looked beyond the edge of the embankment, all we could
see was desert.

Through the direct actions of the Marsh Dwellers and Iraq’s Ministry of
Water Resources, the size of the marshlands has dramatically increased in
recent months. In 2003, only five to 10 percent of the original marshlands
remained. By February 2004, about 20 to 30 percent of the marshlands were
covered with water. Six separate areas have been re-flooded.

Within the re-flooded marshes, some have been re-vegetated and are visually
indistinguishable from the marshlands of the 1980s. However, the extent to
which wildlife has recovered has not yet been assessed. Some areas resemble
flooded deserts, with sprouting reeds and dying desert vegetation. Other
areas are flooded and barren – the water may be too deep or too salty for
germination, the seed bank may be too old, or the soil conditions may be
toxic to reed growth. Studies to resolve these questions are ongoing; the
answers are far from clear.

Fish have returned to many of the re-flooded marshes, migrating with the
floodwaters from the rivers. However, few of the re-flooded areas are as
interconnected as they once were. Fish still have few pathways for upstream
migration through the marshes, and Gulf species, such as the Penaid shrimp,
still cannot reach their marsh nurseries. The uncharacteristically small
size of the fish in some of the re-established marshes may be a result of
over-fishing by hungry settlers with few other options to feed their
families. It may be difficult to convince the Marsh Dwellers to use
sustainable harvest practices while accommodating their immediate economic

On a positive note, the Marsh Dwellers are returning. The UN High
Commission on Refugees estimated that there were 80,000 Marsh Dwellers
remaining in the marshes at the end of last year’s conflict. Since that
time, observers have witnessed a significant influx of Marsh Dwellers
returning from peripheral agricultural areas. More than 50,000 people have
left the Iranian refugee camps that provided shelter to many Marsh Dwellers
throughout the 1990s. The Marsh Dwellers are returning, and with them they
bring old traditions and new dreams.

The newly-established Center for Restoration of the Iraqi Marshes has a
dedicated staff that works from Ministry of Water Resources offices. The
Eden Again Project currently is helping the center develop a roadmap for
achieving its first goal, the development of a sustainable restoration plan
for the marshlands. Using the recommendations of Eden Again’s technical
panel, we are identifying the type and extent of data necessary to build a
scientific basis for decision-making. It is the priority of Eden Again that
decisions about marsh management and restoration be made in a
stakeholder-based, participatory process–a process that accounts for the
wisdom and preferences of the people who have lived in the marshes for
thousands of years. As Eden Again’s project director, I now live and work
in Iraq, dividing my time between Baghdad and the marshes. It pains me to
be separated from my children and my wife, who continue to promote the
restoration project from the opposite side of the globe. However, it is a
blessing to be able to assist in healing my homeland.

I remember the years of frustration as I helplessly watched the destruction
of the marshlands from afar. Now I find joy in paddling through the
marshlands and witnessing their miraculous rebirth.


Marsh Cows

Marsh Boats 

Marsh Arabs 

Azzam Alwash and Suzanne Alwash are the founders and directors of the Eden Again Project. This version of their article appeared in the Fall, 2004 issue of PULSE, the newsletter of Planet Drum Foundation, a voice for bioregional sustainability and culture based in San Francisco. Membership is $25 a year. A longer version of this article appeared in the Environmental Law Institute newsletter, 2004


Eden Again

Iraq Foundation’s website

See also WW3 REPORT #96

Reprinted by WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, Nov. 6, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution