Publication date: 3 April 2023
In the 1990s, while Iraq was subjected to stringent sanctions and being investigated for the development and possession of weapons of mass destruction, one of Saddam Hussein’s most significant crimes against humanity was overlooked. Right under the noses of coalition planes enforcing a no-fly zone in the name of protecting the inhabitants of southern Iraq, Saddam was draining a site of great global, historical and ecological significance – the Iraqi marshes.
Saddam Hussein’s targeting of the marshes was a cruel punishment for the participation of the Marsh Arabs in the 1991 uprising against his government. When he could not flush out the burgeoning rebellion, which took cover within the marshes, he retaliated by damming the water sources that fed these natural wetlands. At a time when Iraq could not sell its oil and Iraqis were going hungry, the country’s resources were instead being used to build hundreds of kilometres of embankments and dykes, as well as canals, to divert the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and kill off the marshes.
This ecosystem was a magnificent symphony of biodiversity in Iraq that relied on the annual floods. In the spring, these floods would bring the sprouting of reeds and the spawning of fish – providing sustenance for birds migrating northward. The floods would also replenish farmlands by washing away the salt that accumulated in irrigated fields, due to evaporation under the intense sun, while also depositing a new layer of silt and clay. The Sumerians respected this annual fertilization process, celebrating the goddess of fertility, Ishtar, during the flood season. These symbiotic patterns sustained some of the earliest human societies, and allowed for the development of cities, the invention of writing and the wheel. Moreover, all Abrahamic religions are rooted in this area, as Abraham was born in Ur, on the fringes of the marshes.
As those of us in the diaspora were assiduously collecting satellite imagery to use as evidence of this crime against our treasured heritage, the US and UN paid little attention. The international community took no interest in recognizing the ecocide for what it was – a crime against humanity. To our dismay, sanctions appeared to be the only tool in the UN’s arsenal. However, the 9/11 attacks undeniably changed how the US would deal with the Middle East, and all eyes were on Iraq.
When we returned to Iraq after 2003, those of us who had monitored this destruction believed there was time to right the wrongs done to the marshes, and to bring to the world’s attention the importance of Iraq’s environmental decay. But we struggled to find anyone willing to listen – be that Iraq’s new so-called democratic leaders or the internationals backing them. This essay is my reflection on a two-decade struggle to try and raise awareness around Iraq’s climate issues, and an examination of what needs to be done today to correct course.
In early 2002, Tom Warrick, a human rights lawyer at the US State Department, suggested that I form a scientific panel to study the data that had been gathered and my proposal for restoring the flow of water to the marshes. This led to the formation of a blue-ribbon scientific panel, which in November 2002 concluded that the restoration of the Mesopotamian marshes was not only feasible but warranted. The world-renowned scientists that made up the panel took a firm stance by adopting a policy position advocating for this important work.
With this badge of approval, I travelled to Iraq in June 2003, marking my first return to the country after living in the US for 25 years. But I was not prepared for the intense feelings that I had at first sight of my country. I visited Basra, a city I had spent time in as a young boy, and where I had studied for two years at university before I left Iraq. I was deeply saddened to see the state of the city – it was dirty and devastated. The thick palm groves I had played in during my youth had become nothing but barren land with few trees still standing. The endless reed forests had been replaced by deserts dotted with salt-loving Tamarisk plants.
But after the shock wore off, it soon became clear that the situation was more optimistic than expected. What had appeared on the satellite imagery to be salt-encrusted lake bottoms, were in fact dried lakes covered with white shells. The catastrophic scenario that the scientists had warned us of – in which super saline conditions irreversibly poison the soil – had not occurred. Moreover, the Marsh Arabs had already begun rebuilding the ecosystem on their own, by breaching small dykes and disabling pumping stations. After the marshes were partially restored, the community began returning to the area to rebuild their homes.
Hope was in the air, and I gathered the courage to leave a lucrative career in California and relocate more permanently to Iraq. Armed with a mandate and funding from the Italian government, I was tasked to survey the marshes and come up with ideas that could be used to improve the life of people in the governorate of Dhi Qar. With this new source of funding, the Eden Again project – which I had previously started under the Iraq Foundation with funding from the US State Department – became part of Nature Iraq, an NGO that I founded to focus on the mission of preserving Iraq’s environment and the cultural heritage it represents.
It was instructive to study the revitalized portions of the marshes and compare them to the areas that were not recovering as well. On 18 December 2003, Nature Iraq bought diesel fuel and paid for the use of large excavators to break down the dykes on the Euphrates, which stood 7 metres high and 20 metres wide. This re-flooded more than 1,000 square kilometres of the central marshes. No permits were needed. No extensive planning was done. It was just good old-fashioned trial-and-error engineering as well as the application of lessons learned from watching nature heal itself.
Looking to the future
This experience taught me two important lessons. First, the Marsh Arab culture, which has endured over five millennia, has the resilience to survive modern persecution and a 12-year drought. Second, I was reminded of the incredible power of nature. Ecosystems have the capacity to heal themselves if we allow them to. If we simply let the water flow, nature can achieve balance on its own. The seeds will grow, the fish will reappear and even birds that have migrated (like the Iraqis of the diaspora) will return.
Knowing of existing and planned upstream dams, we realized that the marshes would only be temporarily re-flooded and not fully restored. Moreover, irrigated farmlands were slowly dying due to salinization, as Iraqi farmers continued using traditional flood irrigation methods while damming projects at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates had reduced the flow of water. Consequently, Nature Iraq shifted the emphasis of the Eden Again project towards focusing on a future with less available water. We developed strategies for eco-sensitive agriculture in the area and explored ways to preserve the marshes for future generations of Iraqis.
Aware of the impending increase in development all over Iraq as sanctions were being lifted, our organization expanded its activities to other biodiverse areas of Iraq. We gathered and analysed data on over 500 sites and identified a list of 82 unique sites deserving of protection in Iraq. This list was published in a report entitled Key Biodiversity Areas in Iraq. We also drew up management plans for the marshes and supported their designation as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2016. Key among the strategies for managing the marshes of the future is to focus on reducing wasted water from irrigation methods, but also to use water as a means of fostering cooperation between Türkiye, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Iraq’s water management infrastructure has historically focused on flood prevention since the 1940s and 1950s. This has led to the loss of over 8.5 billion cubic metres of water a year from the artificial lakes of Tharthar, Habbaniya and Razzaza, as well as Iraq’s dams. This will only increase with rising temperatures. To address this issue, I proposed a plan for monitoring the snowpack on the mountains, which would enable us to predict the amount of water that will be available for crops. In cooperation, Türkiye and Iraq could then release water from reservoirs in the winter, just before the spring snow melt, and channel it to the marshes to create the necessary flooding.
Despite receiving international recognition and support, our proposals for solving the water crisis and promoting regional cooperation fell on deaf ears in Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraqi politicians tend to prioritize their short-term political agendas over plans for long-term environmental and economic stability. While the Ministry of Water Resources did develop a strategy for water and land management in Iraq, which was published in 2014, few if any of the proposed projects were implemented. Furthermore, the ministry’s decision to build a new dam in Makhoul, which commenced construction in 2021 and contradicts the strategy’s recommendation against new dams, threatens the ancient city of Ashur, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the summer of 2022, the inevitable occurred. As drought hit the northern hemisphere, the rivers in Europe dropped to historic lows, and so did the Euphrates and the Tigris. In the case of the Tigris, the effects of the drought were amplified by Türkiye’s filling of the Ilisu Dam reservoir. While the Ministry of Water Resources has attributed the problem to climate change, the reality is that continued mismanagement and the lack of forward planning are major factors. Regardless of the reasons, the Marsh Arabs have once again lost their verdant reed forests, and their wetlands have dried up.
Despite these challenges, I remain optimistic. Barham Salih, the former president of Iraq and a strong environmental advocate, is working with experts to address the issue of climate change and its impact on the region. With his guidance and political acumen, Nature Iraq has developed the Mesopotamian Revitalization Initiative, a master plan for Iraq and the region to mitigate the coming water and financial crises that oil-exporting countries face as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.
The master plan serves as a blueprint for the future economy of Iraq and the region, building on its historical role as the breadbasket of the Middle East and as a vital international trade route. With the decline of the oil market, the master plan proposes leveraging Iraq’s potential as a source of clean solar energy through the development of solar farms, which can generate electricity or produce green hydrogen. This will not only enable the export of sustainable energy but also provide lower-cost power for investors in large-scale manufacturing, looking to tap into the abundant labour force of the next generation of Iraqis.
Twenty years have passed since I first returned to Iraq, and I am still as full of hope as I was in June 2003. I hope to see the visions of the Mesopotamian Revitalization Initiative embraced by the younger generation of Iraqis, who make up a significant portion of the country’s population, projected to reach 52 million by the end of the decade. They deserve leaders who prioritize planning and good governance, rather than those that constantly blame external factors such as Türkiye, Iran or climate change. My hope is that younger generations will support simple yet effective ideas to convert water management from a source of tension to one of co-dependence and shared prosperity with our neighbours.
I remain convinced, just as I was in 2003, that the only path to a better future in the region is through economic integration and cooperation, following the European example after the two world wars. This time, the focus should be on preserving and harnessing the natural resources of the region, including the sun, water, agricultural lands and labour, for the benefit of the humanity and nature living here.