Iraq’s vast marshes, reborn after Saddam, are in peril again

Iraq’s vast marshes, reborn after Saddam, are in peril again

In the southern marshlands of Iraq, Firas Fadl steers his boat through tunnels of towering reeds, past floating villages and half-submerged water buffaloes in a unique region that seems a world apart from the rest of the arid Middle East.

In this Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 photo, water buffalo wade in the Chabaish marsh in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq’s southern marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization, were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein when residents dismantled dams he had built a decade earlier to drain the area in order to root out Shiite rebels. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

The marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization , were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein when residents dismantled dams he had built a decade earlier to drain the area in order root out Shiite rebels. But now the largest wetlands in the Middle East are imperiled again, by government mismanagement and new upstream projects.

Fadl, at 26, is too young to remember the death and rebirth of the marshes, but he has seen their steady decline in recent years as he has struggled to make a living by fishing the brackish waters. Upstream electrical dams and irrigation projects have reduced the flow of freshwater, allowing saltwater from the Persian Gulf to seep in.

In this Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 photo, water buffalo and ducks gather in an island paddock during the sunset in the Chabaish marsh in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

“The situation is good, it’s just the water is bad,” he said. “Ever since 2012, the water hasn’t been fresh.”

Farming and sewage runoff have depleted fishing stocks, forcing some fishermen to resort to using car batteries and chemicals. The flares of nearby oil wells light up the night sky, but the sweltering, humid region remains mired in poverty.

Facing a lack of employment options, hundreds of young men from the area took up arms in the fight against the Islamic State group, joining state-sanctioned Shiite militias. Posters honoring the fallen crowd traffic circles along the roads leading to the wetlands and line the walls inside a monument honoring those killed by Saddam a generation earlier.

Step back in time in this #360Video of Iraq's marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization, perhaps the fabled Garden of Eden, once crushed by Sadam Hussein, and now struggling to recover from war, dams and insecurity. By Sam McNeil and Susannah George

The overwhelmingly Shiite region rose up against Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government in 1991 after his crushing defeat in the Gulf War, and the rebels took cover in the marshes as they battled his forces. The government responded by deliberately draining 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) of wetlands, turning the area to desert and displacing half a million people.

Andrew Whitley, a former Human Rights Watch researcher who interviewed survivors at the time, described the draining of the marshes as a “large-scale crime against humanity.”

In this Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 photo, a fisherman casts his net into the Chabaish marsh in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq’s southern marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization, were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein when residents dismantled dams he had built a decade earlier to drain the area in order to root out Shiite rebels. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Iraqis who lived through that era speak of a paradise lost.

“The marshes were a state outside of Saddam’s control. The resources were a great boon,” recalls Fadel Duwaish, 84, who was displaced in the 1990s and only returned in 2003. “The marshes contained a wealth of fish, the wealth of raising water buffalo. You could turn the reeds into paper. All of the marsh was a treasure.”

In this Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 photo, a water buffalo is taken to an island paddock in the Chabaish marsh in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq’s southern marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization, were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein when residents dismantled dams he had built a decade earlier to drain the area in order to root out Shiite rebels. But now the largest wetlands in the Middle East are imperiled again, by government mismanagement and new upstream projects.(AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam, residents dismantled the local dams, allowing the waters to return, and with them the plants and animals on which the community relied. The revitalization of the wetland was hailed as a rare success story in a country beset by conflict. But still, today’s marshlands are only around 14 percent of what they were in the 1970s.

Development along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, particularly the construction of so-called mega dams under Turkey’s Southeast Anatolia Project, have caused a 40-45 percent reduction in downstream flow in the Euphrates alone, according to a 2015 report from Chatham house, a London-based think tank. The dams also block silt, depriving the rare ecosystem of life-giving nutrients, according to a United Nations report.

In this Sept. 10, 2017 photo, fishermen gather in the morning at an ad hoc market along a main canal in the marsh of Chabaish, Iraq. From here merchants buy fish to transport and sell to markets in the nearby cities of Nassariyah and Najaf in Iraq’s south. (AP Photo/Susannah George)

The marshes were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, and there has been talk of exploiting their tourism potential. Southern Iraq has largely been spared the violence that has gripped other parts of the country, and the marshes were always hundreds of miles (kilometers) away from the front lines in the war against the Islamic State group.

But the weak central government has long neglected the region, and residents complain about a lack of electricity and other basic services. The 6,000 people who live in the marshes dwell in thatch huts and barns, relying on fishing and the raising of water buffaloes. Wooden boats ply channels braided through a forest of reeds.

In this Sept. 11, 2017 photo, a fisherman paddles through Iraq’s southern marshes at dawn in Chabaish, Iraq. The wetlands are the largest in the Middle East and after surviving bombings and draining at the hands of former leader Saddam Hussein, the fragile ecosystem is imperiled again, by government mismanagement and new upstream projects. (AP Photo/Susannah George)

Migratory birds like eagles, cormorants and pelicans still visit the marshes on their seasonal journeys. Richard Porter, a longtime researcher of the marshes and adviser to Birdlife International, said the loss of the wetlands would be a “big blow” to several species.

The marsh’s residents brought the wetlands back from the brink after 2003, said Jassim al-Asadi, the managing director of Nature Iraq and a leading advocate for the area. Now, he says the government needs to finish what they started.

In this Sept. 11, 2017 photo, a fisherwoman prepares to lay out her netting beside a bank of reeds in the marsh of Chabaish, Iraq. The majority of the marsh’s roughly 6,000 inhabitants subsist on fishing and raising water buffalo, but as water quality continues to drop, yields have diminished and increasingly residents are living in poverty. (AP Photo/Susannah George)

“The Iraqi government did not return the marshes to this state — the people brought back the water,” he said. For the region to continue to survive, he says, the government needs to better regulate the use of water in the arid country and work with its neighbors to prevent the construction of more upstream dams in Turkey and Iran.

He warns that if such construction continues, “that will result in the finishing off of Iraq’s marshes.”

In this Sept. 10, 2017 photo, a child stands inside a traditional reed hut deep inside Iraq’s marshes in Chabaish, Iraq. While the region was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2016 the central government in Baghdad has continued to neglect the wetlands, failing to provide basic services like electricity and schools. (AP Photo/Susannah George)

In this Sept. 10, 2017 photo, a farmer transports feed for livestock along a canal in Iraq’s southern marshes in Chabaish, Iraq. The majority of the wetland’s inhabitants raise water buffalo and fish to support their families but due to decreased water quality and low fish yields, the region is mired in poverty. (AP Photo/Susannah George)

In this Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 photo, the sun sets over an island paddock for water buffalo in the Chabaish marsh in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq’s southern marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization, were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein when residents dismantled dams he had built a decade earlier to drain the area in order to root out Shiite rebels. But now the largest wetlands in the Middle East are imperiled again, by government mismanagement and new upstream projects.(AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

In this Sept. 11, 2017 photo, women gut and sell fish at a market in central Chabaish, Iraq. In the largely agrarian society in Iraq’s vast wetlands, women make up a sizeable proportion of the workforce, fishing, raising buffalo and selling in local markets. (AP Photo/Susannah George)

Fishermen fish in the Chabaish marsh in the Maysan province of southern Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/ Nabil al-Jurani)

Water buffalo wade in the Chabaish marsh in the Maysan province of southern Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/ Nabil al-Jurani)

Boats owners are seen in the Chabaish marsh, in the Maysan province of southern Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Boats owners are seen in the Chabaish marsh, in the Maysan province of southern Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/ Nabil al-Jurani)

In this Sept. 11, 2017 photo, a young man drives a boat through a tunnel of towering reeds, in the marsh of Chabaish, Iraq, Sept. 11, 2017. Increasingly unable to support their families with fishing and farming, hundreds of young men from the area took up arms in the fight against the Islamic State group, joining state-sanctioned Shiite militias. (AP Photo/Susannah George)

In this Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 photo, water buffalo walk on the bank during sunset in the Chabaish marsh in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq’s southern marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization, were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein when residents dismantled dams he had built a decade earlier to drain the area in order to root out Shiite rebels. But now the largest wetlands in the Middle East are imperiled again, by government mismanagement and new upstream projects.(AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)


Text from the AP news story, Iraq’s vast marshes, reborn after Saddam, are in peril again, by Susannah George and Sam McNeil. 

Photos by Nabil al-Jurani and Susannah George 

See these photos on AP Images