BAGHDAD, 21 September 2009 (IRIN) – Farmers and fisherman in Iraq’s southern marshlands have had mixed fortunes in the past couple of decades, but livelihood prospects are now looking increasingly bleak.
Back in 1993, fisherman Nasser Shamkhi Dawood, now aged 63, abandoned the area after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein diverted water away from it to drive out Shia insurgents who had risen up against his regime after the 1991 Gulf War.
After 2003 and Saddam’s demise, the network of dams, dikes and canals used to divert the water began to disappear, and the marshes came to life again: Dawood returned. However, he is now preparing to leave again due to the debilitating drought that has turned the marshes into vast expanses of cracked earth.
“The water is gone again; there is no fishing and our livestock have died,” said the father of six. “With this situation we can’t provide for our families and we have to find another place and another source for living.”
Iraq’s once-lush marshlands, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates, were spread over three southern provinces – Nassiriyah, Missan and Basra – and existed for more than 5,000 years.
Characterized by its scattered shanties made of reeds and papyrus, it boasted buffaloes and hundreds of species of fish and migratory birds.
In 1973 the marshlands covered an area of 8,350sqkm. By 2003 the area had shrunk by 90 percent – due to upstream dam construction in Iraq, Turkey and Iran during the 1970s and 1980s, and exacerbated by Saddam’s drainage operations in the early 1990s, Abbas al-Saidi, an adviser to Iraq’s minister of state for marshlands, told IRIN.
Many people were forced to leave to nearby towns and cities, al-Saidi said, but came back after 2003 when the area started to show signs of revival. The estimated total marshland population currently stands at about 1.2 million people, with about half a million living in rural areas, al-Saidi said.
By 2006-2007 only about 75 percent of the marshlands as they were in the 1970s had been restored, with the rest left for agricultural use and oil exploration, he said. However, only 10-12 percent of the current marshland area is covered by water due to low water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates and below average rainfall, al-Saidi said.
“This is scary,” al-Saidi said. “Simply put, the situation is deteriorating and tragic. The areas that were previously covered with water are now dried up, the boats are idle, and the inhabitants are suffering and leaving for the cities again,” he said.
He was not able to give specific numbers but said there were “hundreds” of recently displaced families.
Kadhum Lahmoud, director-general of the Marshlands Revival Centre at the Water Resources Ministry, listed four challenges facing the marshlands: drought, the absence of water-sharing agreements with neighbouring countries, the poor quality of water from the two rivers due to industrial pollutants, and salt water intrusion from the Gulf.
“The marshlands have plummeted to the same [low] stage they were at during the previous [Saddam] regime era. We hope this message does not fall on deaf ears and resonates in neighbouring countries and international organizations dealing with wetlands,” Lahmoud said. “We are now going through a very critical situation.”
To tackle the situation Lahmoud said his Ministry was working on a US$120 million project to boost the flow of water into the area by building dykes on marshland inlets. Each dyke would use satellite technology to track water quality and levels every 15 minutes, with the aim of retaining inflowing water in the marshlands for longer periods.
However, the system would not be completed before 2011.
He also criticized the post-2003 “unplanned and hasty” return of residents to the marshes, saying there should have been programmes to help people diversify their incomes.