By Andrew North

Source: Geographical Magazine, Jul93, Vol. 65 Issue 7, p10, 5p


Humans have sought to control the waters of Mesopotamia for thousands of years, but always with constructive aims. Iraqi opposition groups claim Saddam Hussein's ongoing plan to drain the marshlands is designed to crush rebel activity in the region. In the process, they believe it will wipe out the unique and ancient lifestyle of the Marsh Arabs. Andrew North assesses the situation.

An aura of infinity hangs over these sometimes exhilaratingly beautiful Marshes." wrote Gavin Young in 1977 in Return to the Marshes, his account of life among the Marsh Arabs-the Ma'dan. Sixteen years later, against the background of warnings from Iraqi opposition groups and Western human-rights organisations about the future of Iraq's southern marshes, Gavin Young himself admits this description sounds cruelly ironic.

Vast sections of marshland in the area that is roughly delineated by the triangle of Al Amarah, An Nasiriyah and Al Basrah are being destroyed by the Iraqi Government's ambitious programme of land reclamation and hydrological control, according to these groups. "Local people expect it [the marshes] will be completely dry by the end of this summer," says Berniece Holtom, a spokeswoman at Gulf War Victims (GWV), a Tehran-based human-rights group which keeps tabs on events in southern Iraq. Environmentalists say this would mean the loss of what is the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East.

The engineering schemes, which affect an area roughly the size of Wales, are part and parcel of a long-term plan to bring "an independent-minded region under government control," according to Andrew Whitley, executive director of Middle East Watch, a us human-rights group. Draining the marshes enables Saddam Hussein's troops to penetrate the maze of reed beds and channels which provide sanctuary to dissident groups, says Dr Mohammed Bahrul Uloom, a senior Shi'ite figure in the Iraqi National Congress, the main anti-government grouping.

In the process, the unique, 5,000-year-old lifestyle of the Ma'dan will be drastically affected, according to the Minority Rights Group (MRG). Emma Nicholson, the British Conservative MP who has been campaigning on behalf of the Ma'dan since the end of the 1991 Gulf war, is more forthright: "We are talking about the planned destruction of a people and their environment."

In addition to the testimony of refugees who have crossed into Iran, evidence for these claims comes from satellite images and plans which rebel fighters say they found with an Iraqi water engineer they captured in the marshes in October 1992, as well as from secret Iraqi Government documents which have come into opposition hands. But the issue has become highly politicised and some hydrological specialists urge caution when assessing the evidence being put forward by Iraqi opposition sources.

Estimates of the numbers who could be affected vary widely. The lure of the cities and the 19801988 war with Iran reduced the number of marsh dwellers substantially, and no reliable census has been taken since then. A recent MRG report claimed that 50,000 Ma'dan are still living in the marshes, along with 10-20,000 anti-government rebels. GWV, however, believes that as many as 350,000 people are in danger, including both Ma'dan and refugees.

Scattered across the Al Amarah, Al Hammar and Al Hawizah marshes, the Ma'dan have managed to live in much the same way for centuries, but theirs is a fragile existence. Without the regular flow of water, the region would be uninhabitable. The reed beds on which they depend for housebuilding materials, cattle fodder and fuel would rapidly die off in the searing heat--in July, temperatures can soar to 50 Celsius. Fishing and rice and sugar cultivation, which provide the mainstays of their diet, would become impossible.

The Iraqi government does not dispute the existence of these engineering schemes, only the claims made about their intentions. Abdul Wahab Mahmoud Al Sabagh, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, says they are needed to wash away the salt-encrustation on millions of hectares of over-irrigated farm land, to reclaim new land for much-needed food production and to increase the amount of water available for irrigation.

Of the three main elements to the programme, some are already complete. The largest single project, the Third River, or Leader River, is in some ways separate from the other engineering schemes. This huge 560-kilometre-long canal was designed to cleanse 1.5 million hectares of farmland. Running south from Al Mahmudiya, near Baghdad, the Third River joins up with the Shatt al Basrah canal that flows into the Khawr az Zubayr at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Finally completed in December 1992, after years of intermittent work, Iraqi water engineers say there was no other way of dealing with the salinisation problem. Ironically, the plan was first suggested by an American engineer in 1953. Mott MacDonald, a British engineering consultancy, actually designed and built two sections of the Third River in the 1970s. However, Bill Pemberton, one of the engineers involved, dismisses any suggestion that the project was part of a plan to drain the marshes. "I've heard some wild stories," he says. "But our work was concerned with draining saline water from farm land."

What has made the Third River so controversial is the construction of an earth dam on the Euphrates 10 kilometres southeast of An Nasiriyah, near the canal's route. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shi'ite opposition group, claims this dam is diverting most of the river's flow into the Third River and thereby depriving the Al Hammar marshes of water. But Iraqi water engineers say the dam, as well as a series of tunnels taking the canal under the marsh, are intended to separate the waters of the marshes from the highly-saline flow of the Third River. Some Western experts are inclined to believe their protestations. One hydrologist, who requested anonymity, pointed out that "you can't really say whether the Euphrates feeds the Al Hammar marshes or whether the marshes feed the Euphrates. Without actually investigating the hydrology of this area, on the ground, you cannot say that the Third River is taking water away from that marsh."

A second major element in the engineering schemes is the "Fourth River", completed about the same time as the Third River. Although much smaller, the Fourth River is also reducing the supply of water flowing into the Al Hammar marsh, according to Middle East Watch. Also known as the "Mother of Battles Project", it takes water from the Euphrates upstream of An Nasiriyah, reducing the pressure on the new dam, and then empties into the Khawr az Zubayr.

But in the last 18 months, the most intensive engineering activity has been in the Al Amarah marshes, almost 100 kilometres from An Nasiriyah, according to Dr Hamid Al Bayati, SCIRI'S London representative. He says 40 rivers and streams which previously flowed into the Al Amarah marshes have been diverted by the construction of a double embankment running from the village of Al Jandallah in Misan province for 35 kilometres southeastwards to Abu Ajil, near the Qal'at Salih airfield.

Completed in July 1992, this double levee joins the so-called Al Amarah canal, which was dug for defensive purposes during the Iran-Iraq war and runs southwards for 50 kilometres to Al Qurnah. Since then, Iraqi engineers have constructed a series of dykes up to 30 kilometres into the marshes west of the Al Amarah canal, which SCIRI says have helped to speed up the drainage process. Andrew Whitley also alleges that locks and sluice gates have been "placed at the head of the Tigris distributaries in the Al Amarah area," to regulate the river's flow.

Analysis of recent us satellite images seems to confirm many of the claims made by Middle East Watch and SCIRI. However, doubt has been expressed about the existence of the 35-kilometre-long double levee--one hydrologist said he had been unable to identify it on images he has seen. Nonetheless, it is clear that large areas of the Al Amarah marsh have now dried up. "Most of this has occurred since the end of the 1991 Gulf War," says Shaikh Humam Hammudi, political consultant to the leader of SCIRI, Ayatollah Al Hakim. "Two-thirds of its original area is now dry." Not all of the depletion can be put down to the engineering schemes constructed since 1991 though. The Government drained the eastern section of the Al Hammar marsh, just south of Al Qurnah, in 1985, to exploit the oilfield there.

Middle East Watch disputes the Iraqi Government's claims that the engineering schemes are designed to improve Iraq's food growing capabilities. "No credible developmental argument" can be made for the new Euphrates dam southeast of An Nasiriyah, says Andrew Whitley. Emma Nicholson believes much of the land that is being reclaimed is in any case not suitable for agricultural purposes.

Moreover, according to Shaikh Hammudi, large swathes of formerly viable farmland in southern Iraq have been rendered useless because Government construction engineers have used the topsoil for building dykes. Hammudi claims that in any case the Government is making very little attempt to use the newly drained lands for farming. Professor Tony Allan, a Middle East water-resources specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, agrees. But he points out that "reclaiming land is a very difficult and expensive task--many schemes fail at first." Professor Allan also stresses that Iraqi agriculture has still not recovered from the loss of thousands of Egyptian migrant workers who were responsible for running many of the farms in the south.

However, the tactics employed by the Government in the Al Amarah marshes are not those normally associated with the construction of agricultural development projects. Refugees from Misan province who have fled to Iran have described how artillery was used to clear the areas west of the Al Amarah canal of Ma'dan and other occupants, once the water supplies were under control. Troops were then sent in to secure these districts for Government engineers. After the dykes and levees were completed, mines were laid in the surrounding area to prevent rebels from demolishing them. Shaikh Hammudi says the engineering maps captured in October last year show that the Government is planning to extend these dykes still further westwards into the Al Amarah marshes.

"Flushing out the people who deserted the army before and during the 1991 war, many of whom have holed up in the marshes," is another important objective of the drainage schemes, says one Middle East specialist, "as well as impeding the life of potential rebels based there".

But just as important may be Saddam Hussein's desire to secure his eastern,border against infiltration from Iran. During the March 1991 uprising, hundreds of rebel fighters based in Iran crossed the Al Hawizah marsh that runs along the border by boat. The uprising was brutally crushed. But small bands of rebels have continued to use this approach to slip back and forth across the border since then.

Draining the marshlands can therefore be seen partly as a response to these incursions, continues the Middle East specialist. As Tony Allan points out, this represents a complete reversal from the tactics Saddam Hussein employed for securing his eastern border during the war with Iran. Then, the water-filled marshes actually served his strategic objectives by hindering the advance of Iranian armoured divisions. Indeed, several areas further to the east were intentionally flooded for that very purpose. But as Allan points out, "water stops tanks, not people."

Because it is partly fed by Iranian rivers, Iraqi engineers are not attempting to drain the whole Al Hawizah marsh. But by controlling the flow of the River Tigris, they have been able to lower the western sections of the Al Hawizah marsh running along the river Tigris and thereby limit the number of entry points, says Hamid Al Bayati of SCIRI.

Tony Allan cautions against ascribing the depletion of the marshes entirely to the Government's engineering works. "The GAP hydro-project in Turkey has had a major effect on the flow of water in the Euphrates," he says. Before the filling of the dams in the 1970s, the discharge across the border into Syria was 29 cubic kilometres per year. Since then the flow has rarely exceeded 20 cubic kilometres per year. "This has had some impact on water levels in some parts of the marshes," he says.

Whatever the causes, life is becoming extremely difficult for the Ma'dan. As the waters recede, movement is becoming more difficult. No longer able to traverse the marshes in their distinctive canoes, or mashhufs, "the Ma'dan are often having to struggle through hip-deep mud on foot," says Andrew Whitley. In recent months, residents of the Al Amarah marshes "have been obliged to dig wells for water," he says. On her visits to the marshes, Emma Nicholson has found that the incidence of dysentry, bilharzia and other waterborne infections has risen significantly, because sewage is not being washed away from the Ma'dan's reed huts, or mudhifs. In the Al Amarah marsh, fish catches and rice and sugar-cane cultivation are already in steep decline. This has forced many Ma'dan to become dependent on subsidised and often unreliable Government food supplies.

There have been no surveys of the wildlife in the marshes since the start of the war with Iran, which itself caused widespread environmental devastation. So it is difficult to say how the recent drainage schemes have affected the flora and fauna of the marsh. But Dr Michael Moser, Director of the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB), claims an "ecological disaster is being perpetrated on a massive scale in the Tigris-Euphrates marshes". He says it is one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in southwest Asia. A 1979 survey carried out by the IWRB in the Al Hammar marsh found 81 different species of waterfowl including the white pelican, the sacred ibis and the Goliath heron. The marshes also "support endemic breeding birds such as the Iraq babbler and the Basrah reed warbler, and rare breeding species such as the marbled teal," says Moser.

A better picture of how the marsh environment has been affected by the drainage schemes should come from a survey being conducted by Dr Ed Maltby, director of the wetlands ecosystem research group at Exeter University, which will be published in late September.

But Shaikh Hammudi believes that will be too late for the Ma'dan. On a recent visit to London, organised by Emma Nicholson, he called on the British and us governments to start bombing the dykes and dams in the marshes. He claims it would be relatively easy, because "allied jets have been flying over the marshes every day since the imposition of the no-fly zone in August 1992." Unfortunately for the Ma'dan, they are currently out of the international television spotlight. Out of sight means out of mind, and so there is little public pressure on Western politicians to do anything. "We're not really looking at that question at the moment," says a senior us State Department spokesman commenting on current us policy on southern Iraq. Isolated in their marsh dwellings, the ancient ways of the Ma'dan could become casualties of the modern television age.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Wetland war--draining the marshes has allowed Iraqi troops to mortar areas (left) where rebel fighters (below) are hiding. As the waters recede, their boats become useless.

PHOTOS (BLACK & WHITE): Over 5,000 years, the lifestyle of the Marsh Arabs has changed little. Mudhifs, or reed huts (top), remain the dwelling of choice. And although motor boats are in use, they still favour their traditional war canoes, or taradas (above), and the smaller mashhufs for plying the reed-lined marsh channels. But as the satellite image (right) obtained by Middle East Watch from the us Government shows, large areas of the Marsh Arabs' ancient homeland is now dry. For almost 40 kilometres west of the River Tigris, the Al Amarah marsh has been drained and a causeway constructed along the edge of this zone. Large patches of the Al Hawizah marsh have also been drained and turned into dry land. Taken in August 1992, the satellite image clearly shows the course of the Third River, marked here as the "Main Outfall Drain".

PHOTOS (BLACK & WHITE): One of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl could be lost if Saddam Hussein continues to drain Iraq's marshlands. The yearly life-cycle of species such as the white pelican (top) and Goliath heron will be severely disrupted (bottom). The rare marbled teal duck (middle) is in even greater jeopardy, as it breeds in the marshes.