Ducks in Marsh [Steve Lonergan/Al Jazeera]
The marshes of Iraq have survived for millenia but have been critically threatened in the past century, thanks to mankind [Steve Lonergan/Al Jazeera]

By Stephen Lonergan

Published On 4 May 20244

Abu Abbas knew more about the Iraqi Marshes than most, having lived there his entire life.

So when the Iraqi government of former dictator Saddam Hussein drained the wetlands of southern Iraq in the early 1990s, Abu Abbas witnessed the devastation.

Then a decade later, as young men with picks and small water pumps began knocking down the embankments that kept water out of the former wetlands after Hussein’s fall, he was among those who watched water re-enter the marshes.

It has not been plain sailing since. The marshes are struggling as a result of climate change and mismanagement. And yet, Abu Abbas’s optimism has remained.

Early last year, lying in bed with his health failing, he received a visit from his nephew, Jassim Al-Asadi.

“What is the status of the marshes?” Abu Abbas asked.

“Things are miserable,” Jassim replied.

Before Jassim could continue, Abu Abbas cut him off.

“Do not be afraid for the marshes,” he said. “They will survive, even if the water is salty, as long as there are people like you who will defend them.”

The marshes were once among the largest wetlands in the world, covering 10,500sq km (4,050sq miles) in 1973, an area roughly the size of Lebanon.

They were home to a diverse range of flora and fauna and by the middle of the 20th century supported a human population estimated at 500,000.

The great cities of Ur, where most biblical scholars believe Abraham was born, and Uruk, the largest city in the world in 3200 BCE, lay adjacent to the marshes.

While most of the wetlands lie within Iraq, a smaller section known as Hawr al-Azim is in Iran.

During his lifetime, Abu Abbas observed the natural cycles of creation and destruction of the wetlands as floods and drought affected traditional livelihoods based on fishing, hunting, reed production and farming.

At the same time, he experienced the increasing impact of human activities on the marshes: war, upstream dams, oil development and agricultural pollution.

Kuffa [Steve Lonergan/Al Jazeera]
The majority of the population of the marshes had to leave their homes in the 1990s after Iraqi government policies led to the wetlands’ depletion [Steve Lonergan/Al Jazeera]

Jassim, like his uncle, grew up in the marshes, splitting his time between his family’s reed hut in the middle of the wetlands and his grandmother’s home near Chibayish, a town nestled between two large marshes.

In 1974 when he was 17 years old, Jassim moved to Baghdad to attend university, where he also became active in the Iraqi Communist Party.

Three years later, Jassim ran afoul of Hussein’s government and was arrested by the security police during a visit to Chibayish. He was jailed and tortured for nine months before being released.

“I was fortunate,” he said to me. “Many of my friends and colleagues who were members of the Communist Party were killed or forced to flee the country.”

After recovering from the ordeal, Jassim finished his degree and began his required 18-month service in the army, which turned into five years due to the Iran-Iraq War, before eventually returning to Chibayish to work for the government as an engineer.

But an idyllic life in the marshes was not meant to be. The early 1990s saw the marshes dry out, and like most of the other residents of Chibayish, Jassim and his family were forced to leave.

They moved 400km (250 miles) north to Babil, modern-day Babylon, and Jassim began working in Baghdad for the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources.

It was there he discovered why the marshes were disappearing.

“When I moved to the Ministry of Water Resources in 1994, I realised that the drying-up of the marshes had been the result of a systematic effort on the part of the government to reclaim land for agriculture, displace the population and eliminate our culture,” he said.

In a new book titled The Ghosts of Iraq’s Marshes, Jassim and I use his life story of hardship and survival to chronicle the creation and destruction of the Iraqi Marshes.

We also address the reasons behind Hussein’s desire to drain the marshes and the effect this decision had on marsh dwellers.

Hussein believed in modernising Iraq, including moving people from rural areas to cities.

More importantly, however, he desired to repress a population that had strong ties to Iran, destroy an environment that provided shelter to fugitives – some of whom had left the army as it retreated from Kuwait in 1991 – and kill or displace those who supported the Shia uprising that followed his defeat in the Gulf War.

Despite an incriminating report from the United Nations Environment Programme in 2001 about the drying of the marshes, it was only after the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent fall of Hussein that the world realised the extent of the damage to the vast wetlands and the massive displacement of people living there. It is now considered one of the greatest environmental and humanitarian disasters of the 20th century.

woman sitting on boat on dry lake bed
Southern Iraq experienced severe droughts in 2009, 2015, 2018 and 2022-2023 [Steve Lonergan/Al Jazeera]

After Hussein’s fall in 2003, Jassim became an advocate for the marshes, working for the new Centre for the Restoration of the Iraqi Marshlands and Wetlands and later for Nature Iraq, one of the first environmental nongovernmental organisations in the country.

Jassim also played an important role in having the marshes recognised as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2007 and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.

The initiatives that Jassim and many others fostered are notable but may not be enough to change the long-term outlook for the wetlands.

There have been measurable reductions in water quality, biodiversity and ecological productivity caused by upstream dams, development activities and a changing climate.

Severe droughts in 2009, 2015, 2018 and 2022-2023 dried out many shallow wetland areas and increased the concentration of pollutants in the remaining water.

This increasing magnitude and frequency of drought is consistent with projections of how climate change will affect the entire region.

With the help of contributing author Keith Holmes, we used satellite imagery to estimate that the extent of the marshes now varies between 25 and 50 percent of their size in 1973.

Today, the extent of the wetlands is a function of precipitation in the northern sections of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and how much water the Ministry of Water Resources is willing to release from dams upstream.

Jassim, who carefully monitors the levels of the Euphrates River as it passes by his Nature Iraq office in Chibayish, has seen it ebb and flow.

In mid-December, the depth of the Euphrates was a mere 28cm (11 inches) and much of the surrounding wetlands was dry. But after almost two years of drought, the rains returned, and by mid-April, the depth of the river was 105cm (3.4ft).

If there is rain and if the ministry releases water to the marshes as it promised to do, then at least a portion of the marshes will survive.

But many of the people whose livelihoods once depended on the wetlands for fishing, reed production and buffalo breeding have long since departed.

The government insists it is committed to preserving some of the marshes, but its actions often belie its words.

Does the longevity of the marshes and their resilience imply that they will be around for centuries to come? And more importantly, are the marshes worth saving?

man on boat in marsh
The marshes are water storage systems and wildlife habitats, and they moderate the local climate [Steve Lonergan/Al Jazeera]

Iraq now faces an acute shortage of freshwater.

Ninety percent of its rivers are polluted, and millions of people suffer from reduced access to water. The country is the fifth most vulnerable to climate change.

There is an obvious need for freshwater for human consumption and crop irrigation, and wetlands play a vital role in Iraq.

They are important water storage systems despite high rates of evaporation and provide effective wastewater treatment. Jassim’s work has also demonstrated the capacity of wetlands to absorb and treat waste.

Enhancing biodiversity is another important function of wetlands. Not only are the marshes an important wintering ground for migratory birds, but they also support viable fish populations, at one time supplying more than 60 percent of the fish consumed in the country.

Wetlands also help moderate the local climate. A dried marsh absorbs more shortwave solar radiation, causing the temperature to increase, and a lack of water also produces dust storms.

But even beyond that, the Iraqi Marshes provide an important window to the past and a sense of identity for the future. They are a huge part of the story of Iraqi civilisation and how the country once thrived.

Despite evidence of the importance of the marshes, their preservation is not a high policy priority in Iraq.

In fact, being a defender of the marshes has often pitted Jassim against powerful agriculture and oil interests as well as the Ministry of Water Resources.

Two of the largest oilfields in the world lie in what were formerly wetlands, with the development of new oilfields reducing the size of existing wetlands. In addition, oil companies are resisting the construction of an outlet to allow polluted water to esacpe the southern section of the Marshes, because it could potentially flood more land proposed for oil development.

Ultimately, everything in Iraq takes a back seat to oil, which provides the vast majority of the state’s income.

On top of that, the agricultural sector feels that the water going to the marshes could better be allocated to growing crops.

Jassim’s participation at international conferences and his many links outside Iraq have also raised suspicions among groups that are closely associated with Iran.

In 2018, a photo was posted online of Jassim standing next to the future prime minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi. The post falsely accused Jassim of being a US intelligence agent.

Friends in Iraq and elsewhere came to his support, and the furore soon subsided.

However, on February 1, 2023, Jassim was kidnapped while driving to Baghdad. He was held captive and tortured for 16 days. Once again, he was lucky to survive.

Jassim now spends most of his time in Chibayish, where he is safe from those who wish him harm.

“My safety is not bad but also not good now,” he said. “When I travel to Baghdad, I go with a rental car and not my own car.”

Despite the danger he faces, he refuses to leave Iraq.

“Jassim is not Jassim without the marshes,” he often says.

And as his uncle once said, the marshes will survive as long as there are people like Jassim to defend them.