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In Cradle of Civilization, Shrinking Rivers Endanger Unique Marsh Arab Culture

This spring, National Geographic Young Explorer Julia Harte is traveling along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before they are transformed by the Ilısu Dam, an 11 billion-cubic-meter hydroelectric dam that will generate 2 percent of Turkey’s power.  

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Jassim Al-Asadi knows the Central Marsh of Southern Iraq better than most. The director of Nature Iraq’s Chibayish branch was born in these vast wetlands at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in a traditional Marsh Arab boat.

His birth came two months early in the summer of 1957, surprising his mother, who had been out gathering reeds when her water broke.

“When I opened my eyes, I opened them to see blue sky, the water, the plants, I heard the birds, and I saw the snakes,” recalls Al-Asadi, smiling at the thought. His mother laid him on the reeds she had been collecting, and took him home.

“In that time, there was no land like there is now in Chibayish,” explains Al-Asadi. “The town was like Venice. It had more than 1,200 islands, and between each island, there was water and natural canals.”

A woman races over the water of Iraq's Mesopotamian Marshes in a motor-powered boat. Photo by Julia Harte

A woman races over the water of Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes in a motor-powered boat. Photo by Julia Harte

At their height, these wetlands sustained up to half a million people: Marsh Arabs who relied on buffalo breeding, fishing, hunting, and a few crops. Their lifestyle resembled that of the Sumerians who first settled the marshes 6,000 years ago.

Jassim was born in a hut entirely constructed of mud and reeds. To this day, the grandest accommodations in Marsh Arab Society are towering, arched reed structures called mudhifs, each one made of about 150,000 reeds — and nothing else. A bundle of 50 reeds costs about 2 USD.

Left: Men tug together the arches of a new mudhif; Right: Men pray in the mudhif of a sheikh in Chibayish. Photos by Julia Harte.

Left: Men tug together the arches of a new mudhif. Right: Men pray and socialize in the mudhif of a sheikh in Chibayish. Photos by Julia Harte.

In Jassim’s childhood, the marshes were an intimate part of everyday life — even in the schoolroom.

When the marshes flooded, he recalls, “we put reeds and plants in the classrooms, and put the desks on it. The water entered the classrooms, the birds entered the classrooms; there were fish with us sometimes, not just pupil and teacher.”

At that time, the quality of the water was much higher, according to Jassim. The steady flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers periodically flushed the marshes with fresh water. Jassim and his friends would spend all summer swimming — something he wouldn’t dream of doing now — and drink water directly from the marshes.

Nowadays, all the marsh inhabitants buy water from the town of Chibayish, filling large plastic tanks for about $5 per ton of water, and ferrying them back to their homes on motor-powered boats.

A Marsh Arab family sets off on an errand. Even young children can easily operate taradas. Photo by Julia Harte.

A Marsh Arab family sets off on an errand. Even young children can easily operate taradas. Photo by Julia Harte.

In the middle of the Central Marsh, we disembark on an artificial island that dates back to Sumerian times, according to Jassim, and is now inhabited by a family of two dozen people.

Just thirty years ago, the site was a village with an electricity generator, a school, a health center, and many shops, say the people who live there now.

But all that has vanished in the intervening years. Saddam Hussein perceived a threat in the Marsh Arabs, accusing them of sheltering Shi’ite rebels. He ordered them all to leave, and built roads into the marshes so that his soldiers could find and expel any who remained. In 1993, he dealt the crowning blow, diverting the water of the Tigris River away from the marshes, into a massive canal called the Glory River.

The Central Marsh was completely dehydrated. A few years after the fall of Saddam, the land around the Glory River also dried up.

A town near the Glory River was abandoned after reductions in the Tigris flow shrank the canal and parched the surrounding wetlands. Photo by Julia Harte.

A town near the Glory River was abandoned after reductions in the Tigris flow shrank the canal and parched the surrounding wetlands. Photo by Julia Harte.

After the dictator’s fall, however, locals began to return. With the help of a bulldozer hired by Nature Iraq for about $350, they broke down the main embankment that Saddam had built, and water returned to the Central Marsh.

It wasn’t quite the same, however. Since pre-Saddam times, the quality of the water had drastically worsened; salinity levels reach 4,000 parts per million (ppm) now, says Jassim, compared to 200 ppm during the 1960s. The current level of salinization makes it difficult to breed buffalo, and stunts the growth of the reeds.

“We need good water from the Tigris, but no water is coming from the Tigris,” says Said Ali Said Hashim, a reed-gatherer who left the marshes after Saddam drained them but returned in 2004. “All the water comes from the Euphrates, which has become very saline and low-quality. I don’t care if the water floods into all our houses, we just need water.”

Marsh Arab women sit near their home and watch their buffalo swim. Photo by Julia Harte.

Marsh Arab women sit near their home and watch their buffalo swim. Photo by Julia Harte.

Now that Saddam and his embankments are no more, the Marsh Arabs see upstream dams as the main threat to their water supply.

Nowadays, the quantity of water in the Euphrates River at Nasiriyah is sometimes as low as 18 cubic meters per second, according to Jassim. No less than 90 cubic meters per second is required to supply adequate water for drinking, irrigation, and marsh replenishment, he adds.

Most of the blame for these lower levels in the rivers can be apportioned to Turkish and Syrian dams. Turkey, in particular, controls approximately 90 percent of the water flow in the Euphrates and 50 percent of the flow in the Tigris. In the last forty years, Turkey’s hydroelectric dams have reportedly reduced water flow into Iraq by approximately 80 percent.

The diminishing level of water in the Shatt al-Arab River, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, allows salty water from the Persian Gulf to creep into the marshes and farmland of Southern Iraq, “which is catastrophic for all kinds of marine life as well as for agriculture,” says Bakhtiar Amin, Human Rights Minister of Iraq from 2004 to 2005.

Each year, says Amin, there are thousands of new “water refugees” in Southern Iraq: people displaced by the changes to their natural environment. “Many villages are depopulated because of that. It has a terrible economic impact upon the population.”

Shatt al-Arab River begins at the former meeting point of the Tigris and Euphrates. Since the Euphrates was diverted into the marshes, the Tigris has filled in this section of the Euphrates riverbed. Photo by Julia Harte.

Shatt al-Arab River begins at the former meeting point of the Tigris and Euphrates. Since the Euphrates was diverted into the marshes, the Tigris has filled in this section of the Euphrates riverbed. Photo by Julia Harte.

Turkey’s Ilısu Dam, which with a hydroelectric generating potential of 1,200 MW will meet 2 percent of the country’s power demand when it is finished, will save the government $400 million in energy costs each year, according to project managers.

But to Marsh Arabs, these bucks aren’t being saved — they’re simply getting passed downstream. Sheikh Said Ahmet Said Ali is an agricultural landowner in the Glory River basin. “I think all the effects on the Euphrates and Tigris River are from the Turkish dams. Many times, we haven’t been able to be sure of our water supply because of new dams,” he says.

Jassim highlights the importance of the marshes for its remaining inhabitants. “The locals know very well that the economy depends on the marsh, and they need the marsh,” he says.

For them, environmental ethics and the marshes’ tourism potential are secondary to the larger service the marshlands provide: a resource base for the fishing, buffalo breeding, hunting, and reed gathering that they rely on.

Women sell freshly caught fish by the side of the road near their village on the marshes. Photo by Julia Harte.

Women sell freshly caught fish by the side of the road near their village on the marshes. Photo by Julia Harte.

If all the dams that Turkey is planning to build are completed, Jassim says, “there won’t be any marsh in Iraq. This marsh is here now because we closed the Euphrates between Nasiriyah and Basra and diverted it into the marsh, but that’s causing salinity issues in the marsh. What will we do if there isn’t any Tigris either?”

All the Marsh Arabs we have spoken to agree that the marshes won’t recover until the river water improves. If it doesn’t, they will be forced to make a final migration to the city, ending a remarkable civilization in the land where civilization began.

Sunrise in the marshes. Photo by Julia Harte.

Sunrise in the marshes. Photo by Julia Harte.

This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

 

NEXT: Drought and Dams in the Biblical Garden of Eden