Paradise Lost?

What should--or can--be done about "the environmental crime of the century"?

Five thousand years ago in the Mesopotamian marshes, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq, the Sumerians began history. They devised an irrigation system and built an agrarian society, banding together the children of hunter-gatherers in the world's first cities—Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Lagash, Larsa—on the edge of the marshes. From their cradle of civilization, the Sumerians brought forth writing (as well as the wheel, maybe, and much else fundamental) and carved into clay tablets the epic of Gilgamesh, which describes the Flood. Here, many say, was the Garden of Eden (although the latest scientific thinking suggests it was at a spot now at the bottom of the Persian Gulf).

Saddam Hussein drained the Mesopotamian marshes in the 1990s, turning 95 percent of wetlands the size of Massachusetts to desert. At a Boston rally staged by people opposed to the then-looming invasion of Iraq, a small group of otherwise-minded citizens held aloft a sign that read, "Invade Iraq! Save the Garden of Eden."

After the fall of Saddam's regime in April 2003, Marsh Arabs were quick to breach embankments to reflood parts of their homeland. Conference presenter Curtis Richardson made the photograph above that June on his first mission to assess ecological damages. It shows an Iraqi water engineer in the totally dried-out central portion of the once verdant marshes. It does not show the burned-out tanks and other ordnance abundant along the roadways.
Courtesy of Dr. Curtis J. Richardson, Duke University Wetland Center, Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences

In addition to their iconic force, Saddam's depredations had immense social and ecological consequences. The marshlands were once the largest wetland ecosystem in western Asia and home to a wonderful diversity of wildlife. Fish for all of Iraq came from the marshes, and fish and shrimp spawned there to populate coastal fisheries in other Gulf states, especially Kuwait. A vast oasis in the desert, the marshes were winter quarters for the Dalmatian pelican, the pygmy cormorant, the white-tailed eagle, and many other migratory birds coming along the intercontinental flyway, an estimated 40 species of them now at risk. Several species of birds, fish, and mammals endemic to the marshes may have recently become extinct. A subspecies of otter is among the creatures believed to have been disappeared by the desertification of its habitat. (Perhaps the most famous of Mesopotamian marsh dwellers was an otter named Mij, who emigrated to Scotland to star in the 1960 book Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell, one of the few Westerners to visit the marshes when they flourished.)

When Saddam and his increasingly Sunni-focused regime went after the wetlands, his primary target was its human inhabitants, a quarter of a million or more Marsh Arabs, or Ma'dan, so called—Shi'ites. They lived in watery harmony with their environment, in homes made of reeds on artificial mud-and-reed islands or on the banks of the marshes, as their predecessors had for millennia. With reason, Saddam saw the Marsh Arabs as disloyal, unmanageable, and hard to catch in their refuge of reeds. His efforts to erase them and their habitat began in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War and accelerated following a failed Shi'ite uprising after the Gulf War in 1991. He napalmed their houses, strafed them from helicopters, blew them up, and killed them by the tens of thousands. He slaughtered their water buffalo and cattle, poisoned the water to eradicate the fish, and burned the reed beds. Those marsh dwellers who weren't exterminated were displaced from their homes at gunpoint again and again. Rape and torture were commonplace. Many Marsh Arabs fled to refugee camps in Iran. Today, their population has shrunk to an estimated 80,000.

Saddam said he was trying to increase the amount of dry land available for farming. In addition to eliminating his countrymen, he may have wanted to improve military access to a border area, or develop new oil fields.


This was a "brutal ecocide....purely based on political and military decisions by the previous regime," said Latif Rashid, Iraq's current minister for water resources. It was "a crime against humanity."

It was "an incredible feat from an engineering point of view," said engineer Azzam Alwash, director of the Eden Again Project, and "the environmental crime of the century."

"Genocide," Baroness Emma Nicholson called it, emphatically. She is the chair of AMAR International Charitable Foundation (Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees), which she founded in 1991; a member of the European Parliament; and a former Conservative member of the House of Commons in Britain, awarded a life peerage in 1997. "Saddam Hussein defined the people of the marshlands as lower than the scum of the earth," she said, and this was "a very deliberate attempt to wipe out the indigenous population."

Rashid, Alwash, and Nicholson were among 40 presenters at "Mesopotamian Marshes and Modern Development: Practical Approaches for Sustaining Restored Ecological and Cultural Landscapes," a three-day conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, held October 28 through 30. Participants spoke not only of the Iraqi marshes, but of wetland projects around the world—the Las Vegas Wash, Coiba National Park in Panama, and the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, for example—that might inform work in Iraq.

Both the Tigris and Euphrates have their headwaters in Turkey, and Iraq by no means controls how much of their water reaches the Gulf at Basra. The map shows the location of the former marshes. Well before Saddam demolished them, their health was threatened by dams upstream. Prophets have suggested that future wars in this part of the world will concern not oil, but water.

The architect of the conference, which had many Harvard sponsors, was adjunct associate professor of landscape ecology Robert France. Outside sponsors included the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Largely serendipitously, the conference was preceded by a public panel discussion on issues of human rights, development policy, and the challenges of rehabilitating the Iraqi wetlands at the Kennedy School of Government on October 27, organized by the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs. Contributing to the full-court press were a lecture on "Preserving Iraq's Antiquities and Cultural Heritage," sponsored by the Semitic Museum later on October 27, and an exhibition, Field Photography: The Marsh Arabs of Iraq, 1934, at the Peabody Museum (see "Measuring the Other").


Baroness Nicholson began visiting the marshes in 1991 and struggled in vain throughout the decade to arouse the international community to help the Marsh Arabs. The "huge volume of money" spent in global public relations by the regime in Baghdad, she said, "swayed the world into thinking that what was happening in the marshlands was either not happening at all despite the evidence, or was being done for beneficent reasons. Well, it was happening, and it was being done for the least beneficent of reasons."

Today, the prospect of rehabilitating the marshes has energized people in many parts of the world. The United States, Canada, Japan, Italy, the United Kingdom, and other nations say they will pour millions of dollars into the effort. The United Nations and the World Bank are rallying around, as well as several nongovernmental agencies devoted to the task.

Satellite images from 1983 and 2002 show the effect of Turkey's huge Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates; it has created a lake that covers 320 square miles in total surface area. At opening ceremonies for the dam in 1992, Süleyman Demirel, then president of Turkey, reportedly said, "Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's, the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share their oil resources, and they can't say they share our water resources."
NASA / The Earth Observatory

The locals leapt to action fast. Saddam's undeniably clever engineers had built a system of dams, barrages, and rivers to drain the marshes, including a 350-mile-long canal called the "Saddam River," the "Mother of Battles River," the "Prosperity River,"and the "Fidelity to the Leader Canal." Only a bit of flourishing marsh straddling the Iraq-Iran border survived. "Following the liberation of Iraq, the people took things into their own hands," said Alwash, who grew up near the marshes, fled Saddam's regime to the United States, earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering, worked as an engineering consultant for 20 years in California, and has now returned to Iraq to help do the hands-on work of restoration. "They started breaking the embankments as of the second week of April 2003. They could not wait." The action was haphazard and the resulting reflooded areas fragmented. The Ministry of Water Resources itself sanctioned the release of some water. A three-year natural drought ended last year, bringing further relief. Today, about 20 percent of the original marsh area has been reinundated.

"But is that restoration?" asked Curtis Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center and professor of resource ecology at Duke. He is part of the USAID team developing a plan for the management of the marsh area, one of four plans in preparation, and has conducted extensive studies of the marshes today. "Areas have been reflooded," he said, "but are they the right areas? Is the water of good quality?"

Both the Tigris and the Euphrates are open sewers. The former marshes did a competent job of cleaning the water that flowed slowly through them on its way to Basra and the Gulf, but that system is largely broken. The salinity of the water entering and in the marshes is also a major problem now; the Euphrates is especially salty. Restoring to verdancy thousands of square miles of dry, cracked, mud flats, heavily contaminated with salt and pesticides, "isn't rocket science," Richardson observed. "It's far more complex."

In some of the reflooded areas, what may accurately be called restoration is occurring, he said. Marsh vegetation is growing again and some birds and fish have returned. "Historically, there were in the neighborhood of 40 plant species in the Mesopotamian marshes," Richardson reported. "The reflooded areas have only 12 in some places, but more in others. Fish species used to number about 22 and are now about half that. The fish are only half their former size but may grow larger with time. Bird species in summer are close to historic numbers. We don't know yet what they will be in winter, or about the rare species." (Canada is paying for a bird count this winter.)

In other reflooded areas, the geochemistry of the soil had changed so much during a decade of desiccation, and salinity and toxicity had become so high, that the lands should not have been reflooded. The result has been not living marsh but dead pond, with half the salinity of the sea. The present situation overall suggests to Richardson that 15 percent to 30 percent of the former marshes could be restored—and more if more water were available. His most important ecological message is that whatever water does come to the marshes must flow.

Satellite images record the Mesopotamian landscape during the past three decades: verdant in 1977, desert in 2002, and partly reinundated in 2004. Leal Mertes, professor of geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a panelist at the Kennedy School discussion, explained some of the technology underlying the use of remote sensing for such analyses. Here, each image is rendered in colors of yellow-orange for the desert, bright blue for open water, and gradations of cyan to green for different types of flooded vegetation, based on a statistical image-processing technique known as spectral unmixing.
Courtesy of Leal Mertes


There is nothing new about using water as a weapon of war. The Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians did it. The Dutch did it. Others too. "The Mesopotamian wetlands are the oldest manipulated landscape on the face of the earth," said Robert France. "The word 'natural' applied to them is a complete oxymoron." To be able to farm, the Sumerians were obliged to learn how to divert water out of the rivers onto their crops, and thus they also learned to manipulate rivers to starve neighboring city-states or flood cities they wished to drown.

In fairness to Saddam, one must acknowledge, also, that he was not the first to think of draining these marshes. "He was using detailed engineering plans laid out by the Brits in the 1950s but never acted upon," said France. The British apparently felt the marshes were a home to disease, a public-health hazard.

Moreover, outrage at the draining of marshes is in ways hypocritical, France asserted. "We have a war against wetlands. We drain them all over." Even our language is pejorative toward wetlands, he pointed out. "We ask, Are you mired in your work? Do you get bogged down with details? Are you swamped with assignments?" Of military engagements, in Vietnam, in Iraq, we speak of quagmires. "It took 50 years to destroy 95 percent of the wetlands in California," restoration ecologist Michelle Stevens, of the University of Miami and a presenter at the conference, has been quoted as saying elsewhere. What was spectacular about Saddam's work was that "it took only about two years to obliterate the Mesopotamian marshes."

The marsh dwellers' slough of despond was foretold years ago by the British explorer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger in his book The Marsh Arabs, published in 1964. Thesiger lived for long periods in the marshes in the 1950s, one of very few Westerners ever to have wished to do such a thing. He gave Mij, the otter, to his friend Gavin Maxwell. "Soon," he wrote, "the Marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear."


Even without Saddam or any plan to drain them, the marshes might have died as an unanticipated consequence of the building of dams, which began blamelessly in Iraq in the 1950s. At that time the country's biggest water problem was too much of it in springtime, and the government built dams on the Tigris and Euphrates to permit an even, measured flow of water along their courses to protect towns from flooding. "Snow in the high mountains of Iran and Turkey melts in February through May," said Alwash, "and we had this pulse of fresh, sweet water laden with sediment that got deposited in the marshes and flushed away the brackish water accumulated over the course of the previous year through evaporation." "The marshes get only four inches of rainfall annually, but more than 100 inches of water evaporates," said Richardson. The reduction makes a salty sauce. "There would have been no Garden of Eden, there would have been no Sumerian culture," he pointed out, "were it not for the amount of fresh water coming down into the region from outside the country." "The whole system needs a periodic flood," said Alwash. "Unfortunately, due to the building of dams, we no longer have these floods. One of the important aspects of the restoration of the marshes is going to be the creation of a mechanical flood, as it were. We need to complete computer modeling of the marsh hydrology so that we can simulate water flow and learn how to channel enough water to create a flood."

Kingship, as well as cities, first emerged in the ancient world in Sumer. In the twenty-fifth century B.C., the marshy city-state of Lagash was one of the largest and most powerful in Sumer, and Ur-Nanshe, depicted here in an alabaster peg-figurine, was its king. "A peg-figurine like this would have been buried under a temple as a foundation deposit—equivalent to a modern cornerstone," says James Armstrong, assistant curator of collections at Harvard's Semitic Museum, where the king now sits.
Figurine photograph by Jim Harrison

How big a flood could it be? There are 36 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, said France, but the most troublesome obstruction is in Turkey—the Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates River and its jumbo reservoir—part of Turkey's GAP project. That transformative project aims eventually to build 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the Euphrates and Tigris and their tributaries to generate power and to irrigate 19 percent of the economically irrigable land in Turkey.

Here's the parching reality. According to Richardson, 88 percent of the water in the Euphrates River is controlled by Turkey, 9 percent by Syria, and only a piddling 3 percent by Iraq. Of the Tigris, 56 percent flows from Turkey, 12 percent from Iran, and 32 percent from the watersheds of Iraq. "Right now the flows coming into Iraq are about a third to a half what they were 12 years ago, before Turkey put in dams, and the water quality is much poorer," said Edwin Theriot, director of the environmental laboratory of the Army Corps of Engineers, who has recently served as senior adviser to the Iraqi minister for water resources. "If Turkey implements all of its irrigation projects, it would bring the Tigris to a drip." "We were water-rich," said Alwash, "but after the GAP project was built, we suddenly became a water-poor country." Said Minister Rashid, "So far, we do not have any proper agreements with our neighboring countries regarding fair or a just distribution of water."


"You can't have wetlands without water," said Peter Rogers, McKay professor of environmental engineering and professor of city and regional planning, a participant in the Kennedy School discussion. "The Turks have built an expensive dam, and you expect them to use it. The big question is what happens if irrigation is developed in Turkey. Then there will be no water even for the reflooded marshes that we could restore....In my opinion," said Rogers, "the marshes have gone. You'll see some small remnants, maybe like zoos, but certainly there is not going to be the water for major restoration." Moreover, he believes "there's no rhyme nor reason why Iraq should be in irrigated agriculture," using scarce water to grow crops that could be readily produced in rainier parts of the world. "I'm fairly pessimistic about the marshes," he said, "but optimistic about the future of Iraq if they can mobilize their massive mineral resources, mainly hydrocarbons. You can buy a lot with oil."

Countering that assessment was conference presenter Stuart Leiderman, who has written, "Those who are charged with rebuilding Iraq and with redressing the violations of human rights within that beleaguered nation need to recognize that reflooding the marshes is a fundamental imperative." Leiderman is an independent scholar and activist whose recent work has concerned the plight of environmental refugees. "Remnants of the Marsh culture should not be abandoned as a lost people, nor should their homeland be left as desiccated wastes for oil, agribusiness, and other business interests to develop at will."

"Some of the surveys of refugees living in camps in Iran have shown that if you ask them, 'Would you come back?' many say, 'No. Life is just as good in this horrible refugee camp at it was in the marshes,'" said France in an interview before the conference. "We mustn't romanticize their old way of life. We mustn't want people to live in a museum to benefit ecotourism. Since Saddam drained the marshes, people have been doing dry-land agriculture, and as hard as that is, it was worse in the marshes. So they say, fine, bring back the marshes, but don't do it where I've been farming for a decade. Some of these people do want to get back and live on their artificial islands in the middle of the marsh, but they want Internet access. And of course they want, and are entitled to, good healthcare. And education, and roads, and proper wastewater disposal. That's why development is a theme of this conference."

"You have seen the marshes in their glory. But you also saw some of the poorest people in the world," said Edwin Theriot, referring to a display of photographs by Nik Wheeler of the marshes in the 1970s. "We want to recreate that glorious marsh, to reconstruct that ecosystem, but we need to reconstruct the culture in a way that provides the people the basic resources they need." It is a tremendously complex problem we're asking a fledgling, interim government to wrestle with, he said.

Earlier in the week of the Harvard conference, Theriot reported, Iraq's ministers of water resources, environment, and municipality and public works had met for two days in Venice with representatives of the several donor nations and had agreed how to proceed administratively. There will be a second meeting of the council of ministers soon and another donors conference, in Japan; the four existing proposed plans for the marshes will be synthesized into a single, Iraqi plan, which the ministers will ratify; an international committee of experts will be organized to provide counsel to Iraq; and a master plan for the marshes should be finalized in June.

Alwash has a thought about how to resolve that problem with Turkey. "Let's be honest," he said. "The water Turkey is holding behind their dams has nothing to do with irrigation. They want to exchange water for oil. However, no Iraqi government will be able to survive if they ever sell the historic right of Iraq—as documented by clay tablets from 3,000 B.C.—to the water of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Therefore, we're going to have to achieve a win-win solution by thinking outside the box. If Iraq and Turkey get into negotiating positions that lock them into their God-given rights, we will have a situation similar to that between the Palestinians and Israelis. Fifty years from now, Iraq will be dying of thirst, Turkey will be dying of a failed economy, and we'll still be negotiating. What I suggest is this. Iraq needs electricity. We suffer in Baghdad 10 hours of cut-off electricity each day in the summer, and God help you if you don't have a generator at 2 o'clock in the afternoon in July. Iraq's generating capacity at this point is about 5,600 megawatts. The need is for about 12,000, and that's without accounting for a potential increase in demand. We will have to buy electricity. I suggest to you that if Iraq buys electricity from Turkey, the by-product of that is that Turkey will have to release some water to do hydroelectric power generation. Water comes Iraq's way, and we bypass this hot potato. We did not sell our water rights, ladies and gentlemen, we actually bought electricity."


Christopher Reed is executive editor of this magazine.

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