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Life Flows to Dying Wetlands

Postwar water aids Iraq's Marsh Arabs 

MATTHEW B STANNARD / SF Chronicle 28dec03

IRAQ: STRUGGLE TO REBUILD

Vanishing Marshes

The marshes of the southern Tigris-Euphrates river basin are a spawning ground for fisheries in the Persian Gulf as well as home to many rare and endangered species. Satellite images of the area taken since the 1970s indicate that more than 90 percent of the former marshlands (once estimated at 6,000 to 8,000 square miles) were gone as of 2000. Since then, another 3 percent of the original marshlands have disappeared, according to studiers released last month.

Source: United Nations Environment Program  
Todd Trumbull / The Chronicle

Nasiriya, Iraq -- This city is known to most Americans only as a place of death, where the convoy carrying Pfc. Jessica Lynch and other GIs was ambushed and where a squad of Italian carabinieri was destroyed by a car bomb.

But just outside Nasiriya, new life surges in a place where Iraqis have taken it upon themselves to begin reversing what many feel is one of the most brutal crimes of Saddam Hussein's regime.

They are bringing the marshes back to life.

The marshes of southern Iraq once covered an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 square miles, a watery paradise bigger than the Florida Everglades that sustained fish, birds, rice, water buffalo and the world's earliest civilizations.

Thousands of years after those civilizations lived and died, people remain who live in much the same way as their ancestors, subsisting on nature's bounty in homes built of reeds.

The marsh dwellers, living links to the people of ancient Sumer and Babylon, were nearly wiped out by Hussein, who believed they were hiding Iranian guerrillas and Shiite insurgents in the swamps.

The marshes have served as shelter for fugitives since at least the eighth century, when a group of escaped slaves called the Zanj took refuge in them from the early Islamic empire. The area is too wet to permit the entry of large numbers of troops or, in modern times, tanks, and the reeds grow high enough for guerrillas to elude aerial surveillance.

But when Hussein became convinced, following the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, that he was the latest ruler to face an insurrection from within the marshes, he set out to solve the problem permanently.

Window to the past

Ali Shahin Brisam, general director of irrigation for Nasiriya, swept his hand across a blue swath on the map that occupies one of the dusty walls on his office, which is undergoing reconstruction after postwar looting.

"This is an aerial photo taken in 1988," he said. "As of 1991, the Saddam regime dried up all this marsh. People living in the area—200,000 people—went to another area."

The process was simple, Brisam said: build a dam upstream here, close flow regulators in existing dams there, and dig a new river—the Um-Al-Maarik, or Mother of All Battles river, commemorating the 1991 Persian Gulf War—from the marshes to the gulf.

The new river served no agricultural purpose and was dug to destroy the marshes and the people who lived there, Brisam said.

The Nasiriya native, who remembers well the marshes in their prime, agrees with environmentalists and human rights activists around the world that the draining was a social, economic and ecological disaster.

The loss of fish, reeds for roofs and fences, wood for traditional canoes and other marsh products devastated Nasiriya's economy. Endangered species were driven into extinction. Summers grew hotter with the wetlands removed.

Those hit hardest, Brisam said, were the so-called Marsh Arabs, wetlands inhabitants who were forced to find menial jobs in the cities or face starvation.

"They just live on water, so when there is no water they cannot stay," he said. "They belong here. Their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers lived here."

Reversing course

In April, when his irrigation department was freed from the control of the old regime, Brisam took matters into his own hands, ordering the demolition of one dam, the opening of regulators in others and the virtual shutdown of the Um-Al-Maarik. The marshes quickly began to grow again, rebounding in just eight months from perhaps 7 percent of their original size to about 16 percent.

"Now, 10,000 people have come back. They've started to rebuild their old houses," he said proudly. "They say right now there are only small fish ... but hopefully it will get better."

The reclamation was not without cost: Hundreds of homes, built on the dry land after Hussein's government made it available for residential use, were flooded. One house collapsed on a group of children, who had to be hospitalized, residents say.

But even those who have now been forced to buy boats to take their children to school and are seeking compensation from the regional government for their lost homes say they don't begrudge the marsh dwellers their rebirth.

Deeper into the marshlands, areas that were recently desiccated are now lush and blooming. Date palms bow over green waters that serve as pathways for marsh dwellers in their mashufs, or canoes.

The Marsh Arabs are mostly Shiite, pious and proud and with sun-blasted skin and hands like leather. They are people like Juad Kadem al Juber, 52, and his brother, Hassan, 50, who returned to the marshes recently after enduring exile to elsewhere in Iraq.

"The old regime paid for its supporters to have machines so they could irrigate their land. But they didn't give me anything," Juad said. "I never wanted to leave. But I have family, kids, so I left. ... As soon as I heard water had come back, I ran back from the city."

Anything for the marshes

The brothers hated Hussein and distrust the United States because of its ties to Israel. But they are willing to accept the changes if they mean bringing the marshes back for good.

"It's still the beginning. We still want to see more water so we can grow rice," Hassan said, standing on a bridge overlooking his farm, its date palms leaning over his brother's adjoining land.

"You will never imagine how nice this was. Even better than American life. Nature supplied the people. Water was here. Fish. Birds. Dates. Rice. Everything was cheap.

"And then during Saddam's time it was all dead," he added. "He wanted to steal this beautiful life for the people of his tribe in the north.

"The source of life is water. Without water, life is dead. We can't live without the marshes or without the water. We belong to this. So you can imagine our feelings when the water came back."

It's not all back -- not by a long shot. Brisam estimated that 3 billion cubic meters of water are needed to restore the marshes entirely. Water of that volume doesn't exist in Iraq. There are reservoirs upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Syria and Turkey, but water policy experts doubt either will rush to release enough of the precious liquid to do the job.

Regional effort needed

The United States and the international community could help by brokering a regional water policy, according to experts in international resource management such as Frederick Lorenz, who teaches a Water and Security in the Middle East course at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

"In my opinion, Turkey is not likely to release more water for a specific project in Iraq such as marsh restoration," Lorenz said in an e-mail interview. "And making a determination of how much and for how long would be a difficult task.

"The key will be to get Turkey to participate in a transboundary commission that looks at the overall needs and requirements of Syria and Iraq in the years ahead."

The international community is already involved in other ways, from agricultural stimulus packages being prepared by the Coalition Provisional Authority to the U.S. Agency for International Development's $4 million Marshlands Initiative, which includes a soil and water lab for Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources, pilot projects for waste management and drinking water, and programs to help marsh residents cultivate fish and water buffalo.

People are owed

But while Brisam hopes the international community will help with the difficult task of restoring basic services to the Marsh Arabs, he said he believes Iraqis can clean up Hussein's mess themselves, given time. It's something he feels the water dwellers are owed.

"The most outrageous tortures of the old regime were on the people who live in the marshes. The people who celebrated the freedom the most after the war were the people who live in the marshes," he said.

"Maybe people who live elsewhere in Iraq don't feel the freedom ... but the people of the marshes do."

E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at mstannard@sfchronicle.com
source: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/12/28/MNGLH3VG3V1.DTL 28dec03

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