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Iraq's Ecological Disaster

(February 12, 2003) Although there is a great deal of discussion as to whether Iraq is still developing weapons of mass destruction, other important issues have been largely overlooked. Since the 1991 Gulf War, carried out to remove Saddam Hussein's occupation army in Kuwait, his regime has continued it's violation of basic human rights and has also continued the destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage. The regime has drained the marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. And in doing so it has destroyed a 5,000-year-old civilization as well as a delicate, perhaps irreplaceable, eco-system.

The marshlands where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet and flow into the Persian Gulf witnessed the world's first human cities. More than 5,000 years ago, the ancient Sumerians created canals for irrigation and protection from floods. And during the last century plans were made to harness the rivers with dams for electricity and other major irrigation projects.

But some of Saddam's most intense tortures are reserved for his Kurdish prisoners. Applying hot irons and electric currents while nailed to a wall are standard treatments of torture.

British engineers came up with the first important plans to drain the marshes while working with the Iraqi government. The Haigh Report prepared in 1951 described a series of sluices, embankments and canals on the lower ends of the Tigris and Euphrates. The study's senior engineer, Frank Haigh, decided that the controlled water could be used for irrigation to increase Iraq's agriculture. Thus, in 1953, the construction of a large canal, called the Third River, commenced. This work would continue, off and on, for the next 30 years.

Major work for the Third River project picked up speed only in the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran War. As Iraq shares a small portion of the marshes with Iran, draining of the marshes would make the area easier to control for the Iraqi Army.

Following the end of the Gulf war in 1991, the Shiite Muslims who populate the south rebelled against Saddam Hussein's government. Baghdad's armed forces brutally crushed the uprising, with deadly attacks on the civilians of the area. Reprisals by the army and secret services were equally brutal. Many thousands of Shiites fled into the marshes for relative safety. Following these Iraqi attacks, Saddam gave the order to drain the marshes in order to evict the Shiites.

British explorer Wilfred Thesiger first visited and started writing about the Madan, or Marsh Arabs, during the early 1950s. In a 1964 book, Thesiger referred to the Marsh Arabs as "arrogant, individualistic and intensely proud, they would rather die than be shamed." With a culture that had changed little in 5,000 years, Thesiger wanted to document this unique culture in detail.

Resistant to change, the Marsh Arabs were able to withstand the successive governments over the centuries and were never under their control. But then in the 20th century Iraq's oil wealth started to bring change. A number of the Marsh Arabs went to the cities of Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk to find jobs in the oil industry. With an improved economy, schools and health clinics were opened in the marshes.

However, many of the Marsh Arabs preferred the traditional way of life. They lived on floating islands built with reeds and straw. Reeds and straw were used to build everything, from small huts to halls 30 meters long. The water buffalo were prized and they fished, hunted and grew rice and millet. Their other needs were covered by trading agricultural products and reed mats and baskertry.

Some 30,000 Shiites were forced to flee into the marshes in 1991. They were bombed and strafed by Saddam's helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The majority of the Shiites from the uprising then fled to Iran, where they joined another 650,000 Iraqi refugees It was then that Saddam vented his rage against the 250,000 Marsh Arabs.

The coalition forces declared an air exclusion zone south of the 32nd Parallel to prevent Saddam's air force from continuing it's air attacks against the Marsh Arabs. But the artillery attacks continued. Then the bulldozers came to create roads into the villages. Napalm attacks and an indiscriminate slaughter forced some 95,000 Marsh Arabs to join the other Iraqi refugees in Iran.

Those who could not flee to Iran were rounded up by Saddam's troops and sent to camps outside of the marshes. Their traditional way of life has been replaced by poverty and little means for making a decent living.

One Iraqi engineer captured by the Shiite resistance had a document which detailed Saddam's order for the marshes and the Marsh Arabs. All foodstuffs were ordered taken away and the sale of fish was forbidden. Troops prohibited travel to and from the marshes. The document also described orders for mass arrests, assassinations, poisoning the water and burning of the villages.

Satellite photographs told the story of the draining of the marshes. By 1993 Iraq had managed to prevent water from reaching two hirds of the marshlands. They had diverted the Euphrates to the "Mother of all Battles" Canal. Water had been diverted from reaching the marshes.

Satellite photographs taken in 2001 showed that the marshlands, once 20,000 square kilometers, had been reduced by some 90 percent. Only the al-Hawizeh Marsh, which is on the Iran-Iraqi border, remains. But it, too, is being reduced. Klaus Toepfer of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said: "This major ecological disaster, comparable to the drying up of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of large tracts of Amazonia, has gone virtually unreported until now."

Not only has the damage deprived the Marsh Arabs of their way of life, but the main Amara Marsh is now a salt-encrusted desert. And the salinization of the land is quickly destroying good agricultural areas adjacent to the former marshlands.

"Mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct," said one UNEP study. "Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have experienced a sharp decline."

The extinct species include the smooth-coated otter, the Indian crested porcupine, the bandicoot rat and the marsh gray wolf. The Iraqi babbler and the Basrah reed warbler are just two of the bird species found only in the marshes. They too are threatened as the al-Hawizeh Marsh disappears.

The UNEP report also said that the disappearing marshes are having an effect on global biodiversity from Siberia to South Africa. The marshes were an important stopover for waterfowl and other migratory birds that fly between breeding grounds in Siberia, Europe and Asia and their wintering habitat in Africa. Some of the affected include pelicans, flamingoes and herons.

It is extremely unlikely that the current regime under Saddam Hussein can be encouraged to restore water to the marshes. After all, Saddam had no hesitation in setting fire to the oil fields and the sending of masses of crude oil into the Persian Gulf in 1991. Neither environmental nor human rights are considered in Baghdad.
Masour Askari

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