Iraqis seek to preserve their ‘Garden of Eden’
Baghdad - “Can you imagine what it is like to live in the midst of water. It is more than wonderful,” Oum Ali said, recalling her childhood in al-Ahwar marshes of southern Iraq, once home to a vibrant wetland ecosystem.
In the 1960s, Iraq’s marshland, often called the “Garden of Eden”, had thick and nearly impenetrable vegetation that protected and isolated its inhabitants, the Marsh Arabs, from outside powers. However, war, development and aggressive water control projects dried out the unique wetland, triggering a campaign to include it on UNESCO’s list of endangered natural heritage sites.
“My family moved to the marshland when my father, who was a teacher, was assigned to one of the public schools there, said Oum Ali, 60. “Life was so different from the city. There were no cars and no concrete buildings but small reed houses scattered across the marshes and we used to commute in small boats called mashaheef.”
“It took us a while to get used to living so primitively but we eventually appreciated that kind of life. With my sisters and brothers, we used to go fishing and hunting ducks and birds that you could only find in the marshes.”
The marshes, as depicted by Oum Ali, no longer exist. They ended when Iraq and its neighbouring countries began water programmes along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for irrigation and hydroelectric power.
The final blow came in 1991 in the wake of the first Gulf war, when former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established a series of projects, including dams, dikes and canals, in the marshes. These prevented water from flowing into the area, depriving the ancient fertile area of its life source.
The projects were meant to punish the Marsh Arabs for supporting Shias who rebelled against Saddam’s forces.
Only 4% of the wetland, which covered an average of 9,650 sq km in Iraq, remain. Efforts to restore the wetlands began after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as the government sought to exploit the area for tourism purposes.
Environmentalists, civil society activists and local authorities in the southern provinces campaigned to include the marshes and the nearby ancient city of Ur on the list of Protected World Heritage of UNESCO.
Artist and environmental activist Rayya Radi said: “Al-Ahwar is an unusual world by itself, rich with history and heritage closely linked to the life of our ancestors and we cannot stay idly over its demise.”
Omar Sattar, another activist, stressed the importance of listing al- Ahwar among world heritage sites, saying such a designation would secure a bigger quota of water from the Tigris and Euphrates. The current flow is limited to surplus water allocated to irrigation.
“Once it becomes an internationally protected reserve, it will also facilitate UN monitoring,” Sattar said.
Compounded with a drought that has stretched for two decades, the draining of the marshes pushed Marsh Arabs, who owned livestock — mainly cows or buffaloes — and depended on fishing for a living, to move out.
“The migration of the Marsh Arabs towards the city is bad news for the area. I am doubtful that they will ever return, even if the marshes were restored to their previous state. They simply got used to city life,” said environmental journalist Ahmad Saadi.
Water levels in the marshes are 1.1 metres, compared to 2.7 metres in the 1990s. The demise of the Iraqi marshes has been compared by the United Nations to the deforestation of the Amazon.
Iraq’s efforts to restore the wetland came a bit “too late” when Iraq signed the international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, Ramsar, in 2007, according to Jassem Assadi, environmental expert with the Ahwar al-Iraq organisation.
A key commitment of Ramsar member countries is to identify suitable wetlands and take steps necessary to manage them effectively and maintain their ecological character.
“In Iraq, one part of al-Ahwar called Howiza was selected as a Ramsar site and Ahwar al-Iraq was contracted by the Ministry of Environment to design a plan to manage the site,” Assadi said. “We have sought the assistance of Canadian experts and proposed a plan of action which was accepted along with Iraq’s membership.”
Samira Abed Shabib, director-general of the project for restoring al-Ahwar at the Ministry of Water Resources, said the ministry reopened water channels feeding the wetlands in 2004 after they had been blocked for several years.
“The resuscitation of al-Ahwar has become a national demand and Iraq’s signing of the Ramsar convention has increased momentum to restore the wetlands to its former glory,” Abed Shabib said.