Saddam's Regime: Draining of the Arab Marshes

The picture above shows a rising sun above the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq. The draining of these marshes occurred in Iraq and Iran between the 1950s and 1990s.

A large area of marshes in the Tigris-Euphrates river system was cleared placing life and livelihood there at the back burner. No matter what reasons the government stated for the same, people there had got wind of their little maneuver.

The draining of the marshes had happened for political reasons, mainly to force Marsh Arabs to migrate and to force them for their part in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein's government. However, the government claimed the draining o have occurred for land reclamation and for exterminating a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

These Marshes are the ideal example of how war and politics are killing the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. After Saddam was overthrown in 2003, the marshes were re-flooded. The drainage, however, had already caused great environmental damage.

The United Nations narrated the draining of the Mesopotamian marshes as a 'tragic human and environmental catastrophe'.

Environmental Effects

An upsurge in pollution in the Euphrates has caused the river fishes to die and become almost extinct from these waters. Further, the water quality and salinity have worsened as compared to the pre-drained marshes.

The dropped water level increased the salinity. Some of the native plants and fish species were reintroduced in the waters because of increased salinity which has badly affected Buffalo herding and fishing in the marshes.

Many fishermen had to quit fishing on the Shatt-al-Arab. Being a gateway to the Arabian Gulf, the Shatt-al-Arab river was a pivotal source of commercial sea fishing. After the government stopped helping, the fishermen had to work in the municipality.

Fishermen now had to sail close to Iran and Kuwait as the polluted and salty water didn't have enough fishes in it. Many times, these fishermen were harassed for fishing in the waters of these neighboring countries.

Iraq once was had one of the most abundant fish resources. It's very surprising to know that it now has to import 60% of its fish.

Industrial waste, domestic sewage, and agricultural fertilizers, all end up in the Shatt-al-Arab. A meticulous study by the Wetland Ecosystem Research Group at Royal Holloway, University of London concluded that thousands of fish and waterfowl died as the waters retreated, and the Central Qurnah marshes essentially no longer exist as an ecosystem'.

The Plight of the Fishermen and Residents

Karim Kadhem, a retired fisherman, has conversed with Aljazeera about how their lives were affected by this political draining. " The water here, in the past was clear and sweet. Now we can't drink your water. It's polluted" He had said. Muslim Abdulrazak, another fisherman, said that most of the fishes were killed by the poison used in fishing along with explosives.

"There's no awareness of our situation. No one's talking about the waters where we can work. It's getting harder every year. Someone has to talk about the dams threatening our livelihood", said Kamel Khalil, a local fisherman.

Demographic Effects

The wetlands were now deserts, forcing the residents out of their settlements. Furthermore, villages located in the marshes were burned down, water was intentionally poisoned, and villager's vehicles were attacked by government helicopters.

Also, thousands of marsh Arabs were killed. The Marsh Arabs, who were in the population of half a million in the 1950s, have diminished to a size of twenty thousand in Iran.The western Hammar Marshes and the Central Marshes had dried out entirely while the Hawizeh Marshes too sank drastically.

What Was the Political Response?

Besides the Gulf war sanctions that the UN had imposed, no specific legal recourse was present for the people who were disposed of by the drainage projects.

The AMAR International Charitable foundation had recounted the event as " an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe of monumental proportions with regional and global implications."

Refugee international, therefore, suggests that:
  • Iraq's rich agricultural heritage should be recovered by restoring the marshland through careful and meticulous study of dam removal. From the existing dams, an adequate flow of water for the marshlands should be ensured.
  • To ensure a consistent and steady supply to Iraq, a regional river utilization strategy should be formed.
  • To extend a helping hand to the Marsh Arabs, the government of Iran should permit greater access to refugee camps by aid agencies and NGOs.
  • USAID and AMAR feasibility study regarding the restoration of the marshlands should be supported with continued financial and political support. This would help promote coordinated and long-term development projects.
  • To help Iraq acquire the agricultural capacity to help feed its population without depending on oil exports for food, a mixed economy system should be developed and adopted. 

Written by - Devyani Roy

Edited by - Akanksha Sharma

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