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Hope, Economic Transformation in Iraqi Marshlands
A young girl living on a "floating island" in the interior of the southern marshlands of Iraq. No more than 2,000 Marsh Arabs still live on these islands, following the drainage of the area in the 1990s. (All photos courtesy of Peter Reiss)

Hope, Economic Transformation in Iraqi Marshlands

Peter Reiss, director of a USAID program to restore the world's second-largest wetlands, explains how Saddam Hussein's drainage of the area has altered an ancient culture.

A newly constructed guesthouse in the southern Iraq marshlands. The construction is unique to southern Iraq and reflective of a culture that dates back at least 5,000 years. Images of these buildings can be found on Sumerian tablets.

Some good news did come out of Iraq in 2005, and some English-language media outlets reported it. In February, almost two years after the U.S.-led invasion, the journal Science announced that water quality in the marshlands of southeastern Iraq, once the world's second-largest, was better than some feared, and that the marshes stood a reasonable chance of being restored. A policy of continuous, punitive drainage after the 1991 Gulf War and Shiite rebellion had been a disaster for the Marsh Arabs, or Ma'dan, and their 5,000-year-old culture. On the eve of the invasion, healthy wetlands stood at 7 percent of their pre-1979 size, and the numbers of Marsh Arabs living in the area had plummeted from a peak of 500,000 in the 1950s to perhaps 125,000, according to Dr. Peter Reiss, an anthropologist by training and director of a $4 million restoration program kick-started by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in April 2003.

"We developed a program that was two tracks: looking at the ecosystem, to try to understand what was the impact of drainage and what would the future be, and also looking at social and economic assistance to the population," said Reiss at a Nov. 9, 2007, talk at UCLA, sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies. Reiss used photographs to tell a story of devastation and transformation in the marshlands, which extend into neighboring Iran.

Elder members of a Marsh Arab tribe sitting in a traditional guesthouse constructed of reeds, the most common freshwater vegetation historically. The guesthouses are constructed by each tribe and subtribe and offer safe haven for travellers in the area.

The people's lives had changed during the years of drainage. No more than 2,000 Marsh Arabs are now living on "floating islands" made of reeds, the ubiquitous vegetation. Instead, they are adapting to life on dry land, Reiss explained. An economy formerly based on birding, fishing, and water buffaloes today "is being built on cows and sheep," other animals, and crops such as wheat and sorghum. The latter was introduced by Reiss's team of about 60 Iraqi and 12 outside experts, a number of them from the University of Basra.

Team members also started a veterinary service, inoculated animals, and introduced alfalfa to promote their health. Wetlands experts and others on the team authored the 2005 Science paper along with Reiss. They have been thrilled to witness a resurgence of migratory birds since 2003. Reiss said that technical challenges largely defeated an effort to restock the marshes with fish. Even though catfish in the marshes typically measure about 10 cm, overfishing continues. The locals still "are not giving a chance for fish to get to a larger size where they're more marketable," he said.

In spite of a prevailing attitude among foreigners that the Marsh Arabs were strictly for the marshes, Reiss said at the talk, "they were real people with their own names, and they were not interested in becoming artifacts in museums, and they were not interested in just having the whole area reflooded, because they were getting the best income they'd ever had."

This marsh was the only healthy part of the southern marshlands, the second-largest in the world, that survived an intense drainage program in the 1990s.  The view faces due east towards Iran, which shares the marshland.

In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein had not been content to shrink the Marsh Arabs' liquid domain, where buildings of dried reeds sat atop live reeds heaped into small islands. His armies also burned swaths of land, killed people, and forced others to move about repeatedly or leave for the Iraqi countryside and the marshes of Iran, where Arabic is also spoken. Some stayed at the margins of the reduced wetlands and took up agriculture. It's an aspect of the story that media generally missed in 2005 (the Economist was an exception): the genocidal policies of Hussein and major water projects in Turkey, Iran, and Syria have conspired to permanently alter a culture, and the new ways of life are somewhat at odds with redevelopment of the wetlands.

Now, in spite of the scarcity of water in the region, more than 50 percent of the original area has been reflooded. Reiss cautioned the audience not to confuse reflooding with marsh restoration; he added that central and local government decisions on reflooding do not necessarily coincide with the wishes of the local population. The Marsh Arabs still struggle with waterborne disease and, recently, an alarming level of intertribal violence.

Said Reiss at the opening of his presentation: "I read Wilfred Thesiger's book [The Marsh Arabs, 1964] when I was a graduate student and thought, 'This is a place that is fantastic and that I'll never see.'"