Draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes
The draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes occurred in Iraq and to a smaller degree in Iran between the 1950s and 1990s to clear large areas of the marshes in the Tigris-Euphrates river system. Formerly covering an area of around 20,000 km2 (7,700 sq mi), the main sub-marshes, the Hawizeh, Central, and Hammar Marshes and all three were drained at different times for different reasons.
The draining of the Central Marshes was intended to reclaim land for agriculture and exterminate a breeding ground for the malaria-spreading mosquitoes. However, some Western and Islamist sources have described the draining as a political attempt to force the Ma'dan people out of the area through water diversion tactics.
Since the time of the Sumer, agriculture in Mesopotamia involved major melioration, including drainage and building of irrigation canals. After the collapse of the Mesopotamian civilization and the Arab conquest the territory was derelict, which resulted in the restoration of the original wetland conditions. The wetlands were gradually populated by the Marsh Arabs, or Ma'dan, who, being ignorant of the advanced agricultural techniques practiced by the Sumer and Babylonians, grew rice and grazed buffalo on the natural vegetation. At times, they had also served as a refuge for escaped slaves and serfs, such as during the Zanj Rebellion, becoming a source of instability for the whole region.
The British colonial administrators were the first to attempt to drain the marshes, motivated by their role as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and lack of apparent economic value, as well as the potential use of the water for irrigation. Prepared in 1951, The Haigh Report outlined a series of sluices, embankments and canals on the lower ends of the Tigris and Euphrates that would drain water for agriculture. These notably included the Main Outfall Drain (MOD), a large canal also referred to as the Third River, and the Nasiriyah Drainage Pump Station. Neither were completed under British rule: they were later revived by the Ba'athist government.
During the 1970s, the expansion of irrigation projects had begun to disrupt the flow of water to the marshes; by the early 1980s, it was evident that these had significantly affected water levels. Part of the Hammar Marsh was also drained in 1985 during efforts to prepare the area for oil exploration.
By the mid 1980s, the marshes had become a refuge for elements persecuted by the Ba'athist government of Saddam Hussein (Shi'ites in particular), and a low-level insurgency had developed against the drainage and resettlement projects, led by Sheik Abdul Kerim Mahud al-Muhammadawi of the Al bu Muhammad under the nom de guerre Abu Hatim.
Gulf War Draining
After the First Gulf War (1991), the Iraqi government revived a program to divert the flow of the Tigris River and the Euphrates River away from the marshes. This was done to prevent any remaining militiamen from taking refuge in the marshes, the Badr Brigades and other militias having used them as cover.
The flow southwards from the distributary streams of the Tigris was blocked by large embankments and discharged into the Al-Amarah or Glory Canal, resulting in the loss of two-thirds of the Central Marshes by as early as 1993. A further canal, the Prosperity Canal, was constructed to prevent any overflow into the marsh from the main channel of the Tigris as it ran southwards from Qalat Saleh. By the late 1990s, the Central Marsh had become completely desiccated, suffering the most severe damage of the three main areas of wetland. By 2000, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that 90% of the marshlands had disappeared.
The Central Marshes stretched between Nasiriyah, Al-'Uzair (Ezra's Tomb) and Al-Qurnah and were mainly fed by the Tigris and its distributaries. They were characterised by tall qasab reeds but included a number of freshwater lakes, of which the largest were the Haur az-Zikri and Umm al-Binni (literally "mother of binni", the latter being a species of barbel). The marshes support breeding populations of the Basra reed-warbler and marbled teal, along with several other species of non-breeding birds.
It was feared that the Levant darter (Anhinga rufa chantrei), a subspecies of the African darter, and the maxwelli subspecies of the smooth-coated otter had disappeared entirely, but small and threatened populations remain of both. It is feared that the Bunn's short-tailed bandicoot rat (Nesokia bunnii, syn. Erythronesokia bunnii), which had only been described from specimens obtained in the Central Marshes, is extinct.
A study by the Wetland Ecosystem Research Group at Royal Holloway, University of London concluded that thousands of fish and waterfowl died as the waters receded, and that the central Qurnah marshes 'essentially no longer exist as an ecosystem'.
According to a 2001 United Nations Environmental Programme report, the projects resulted in:
- The loss of a migration area for birds migrating from Eurasia to Africa, and consequent decrease in bird populations in areas such as Ukraine and the Caucasus
- Probable extinction of several plant and animal species endemic to the Marshes
- Higher soil salinity in the Marshes and adjacent areas, resulting in loss of dairy production, fishing, and rice cultivation.
- Desertification of over 7,500 square miles (19,000 km2).
- Saltwater intrusion and increased flow of pollutants into the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, causing disruption of fisheries in the Persian Gulf
The water diversion plan, which was accompanied by a series of propaganda articles by the Iraqi regime directed against the Ma'dan, systematically converted the wetlands into a desert, forcing the residents out of their settlements in the region. The western Hammar Marshes and the Qurnah or Central Marshes became completely desiccated, while the eastern Hawizeh Marshes dramatically shrank. Furthermore, villages in the marshes were attacked and burnt down and there were reports of the water being deliberately poisoned.
The majority of the Maʻdān were displaced either to areas adjacent to the drained marshes, abandoning their traditional lifestyle in favour of conventional agriculture, or to towns and camps in other areas of Iraq. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 fled to refugee camps in Iran. The Marsh Arabs, who numbered about half a million in the 1950s, have dwindled to as few as 20,000 in Iraq. Only 1,600 of them were estimated to still be living on traditional dibins by 2003.
The AMAR International Charitable Foundation described the event as "an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe of monumental proportions with regional and global implications."
Besides the general UN-imposed Gulf war sanctions, there was no specific legal recourse for those displaced by the drainage projects, or prosecution of those involved. Article 2.c of the Genocide Convention (to which Iraq had acceded in 1951) forbids “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Additionally, the Saint Petersburg Declaration says that “the only legitimate object which States should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy”, a provision potentially violated by the Ba'athist government as part of their campaign against the insurgents which had taken refuge in the marshlands.
Since water flowed unfiltered into the Gulf through the newly-dug canal system, The Kuwait Regional Convention for Co-operation on the Protection of the Marine Environment from Pollution could be used to compensate Iraq’s neighbours for the increase in marine pollution, but it does not protect the Ma'adan for the loss of their marshlands.
Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, many embankments and drainage works were dismantled under the newly formed administration, and the marshes began to refill. The Central Marshes showed little recovery through 2003, but by early 2004 a patchwork of lakes had appeared in northern areas. There was flooding in southern areas which had previously been dry since the early 1990s.
There has been some corresponding recolonization by the natural marsh vegetation since that time, and return of some species of fish and birds. However, recovery of the Central Marshes has been much slower compared to the Huwaizah and Hammar Marshes; the most severely damaged sections of the wetlands have yet to show any signs of regeneration. Bunn's short-tailed bandicoot rat is still suspected to be extinct.
- Environmental issues in Iraq
- Aral Sea - a water redistribution project
- The Sudd - a large marshland in Africa, site of another planned large-scale drainage project, the Jonglei Canal within a desert ecosystem
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