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Water at War - 56 WATER AT WAR Iraq’s marshlands once...

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Unformatted text preview: 56 WATER AT WAR Iraq’s marshlands, once decimated by Saddam Hussein’s campaign against his own people, are reviving with global aid. By Azzam Alwash hen I was growing up in southern Iraq in the 19605, my family used to take me on picnics to the Great Ziggurat temple and the royal burial grounds of Ur. about 140 miles northwest ofthe Persian Gulf. I remember the massive brick structures jutting up From a stark landscape, in contrast to my verdant hometown of Al-Hillah—once ancient Babylon—fed by the Euphrates River. Little did I know that my deSert playground at Ur once sat on the shoreline of the Gulf, at the mouth of'the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The dry, ashen dirt where I played had been the center ofa bounti— Ful oasis where ancient kings had ruled and ancient priests had appeased their gods, :1 place that often bears the title “cradle ofcivilization”: Mesopotamia. Five thousand years ago the entire region was lush, Fertile—an ideal birthplace For human civilization. Ar- cheological studies published this year show that between 3000 n.t:. and 201.10 at; a concatenation oFcities stretched eastward Front Mesopotamia all the way to moderwday India and Pakistan. Yet the most extensive evidence of urban evolution comes From the old riverbanks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Solid wheels Were used, and perhaps invented, there. Organized cultivation ofwheat and bar— ley began on those marshy shores. The cities' inhabitants developed a written language. And a distinct separation between state and temple was recorded. By the time 1 was playing on the remnants of ancient Ur, many environmental changes had taken place. Droughts, changing river courses. and silting ofthc river outlets into the Gulf had pushed the coastline southward and the gi- ant rivers eastward. Yet the Tigris and Euphrates were still inf-using the land with life, a land said to have been the biblical Eden. In the 19705 8.00” square miles ofwetlauds provided a home to hundreds ofspecies ofxvildlife, as well as to people—the Marsh Arabs. or Ma'adan—whose ancestors net I UItAI ms I ”In Novemberé‘flfl? had been thriving in the watery environment for centuries. Then the entire ecosystem crashed. he region's worst environmental disaster in the history of human civilization took place in a single decade ofmy adult life. In the middle of the Iran—Iraq war, which lasted From 1980 until 1988, Saddam Hussein's regime began using water as a weapon, and a weapon of mass destruction at that. Supply roads were cut through the marshes. and large tracts were dried and then refiooded for strategic purposes. as Saddam's army blocked Iranian advances and hunted political enemies and weapons smugglers. But it was after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. when the Ma’adan rose up with other Shi’a Iraqis against the regime (expecting US. help that never came). that the assault on the marshes began in earnest. Saddam Hussein's army dammed the rivers and dug extensive canals to divert the water and drive out the insurgents. The soldiers also contaminated the marshes with pesticides and pulsed high—voltage electricity through the water to kill whatever life might have remained. Before 1990, the Tigris and Euphrates brought 25,00“ lraqi marshland scenes from the early 1??le [top row, from left to right}: an elderly Ma’adan, or Marsh Arab, drinks tea; a Ma’adan village floats in open water; villagers collect reeds used for houses, fodder, and fuel; men in a motor- boat tow two canoes. Presentaday images mark the changes wrought by time. war, and restoration efforts {bottom row. from left to right}: the Great Zlggurat in Ur sits far from the Persian Gulf; desiccated land lacks the wildlife once abundant there; a boy pilots a boat on a lush. reclaimed section of the Hawizeh Marsh; a mortar lies in dry dirt—— a reminder of the work yet to be done. billion gallons of water through lraq each year. More than 60 percent ofthat How came from the mountains ot‘ Kurdistan in spring. fed by melting snow. The low~lying marshes acted as :1 Hood basin. annually refreshed with a large supply of Freshwater that was laden with nutrients. The spring flooding of the marshes coincided with the spawning ofseveral fishes and the end ofwinter dormancy for reeds. and ushered in the annual migration of more than 200 bird species between Siberia and Africa. The Basra reed warbler, the Dalmatian pelican, the Goliath heron. the grey hypocolius. the inarbled teal——all thrived in the reedy haven, an ecosystem that lived by the annual pulse of Fresh water. For millennia, people also relied on the regular influx. Sumerian farmers lived around the perimeter of the marshes and profited from the new layer ofsilt and clay swept in every year. which renewed the vitality oftheir farmland. Barley, wheat. and rice flourished in the long. moisr growing season. The marshes also provided the ancient Sumerians and some oftheir descendants—the Ma’adan—with plentiful fish and wildlife. not to mention an unusual Source ofconstruction material: reeds. particularly Plintgminrs atolmlis. That species, which is treated as a pest in the United States. grows as high as thirteen li:et tall. The Ma'adan cut and bound the r ‘eds together to make huts and even islands atop the surround- ing water. The reeds were fed to water buffalo and cattle, burned as fuel. bound into boats. and woven into mats. In more ways than one the reeds served as the scaffolding of the marshland. The thick reed growth helped to slow passing water and trap tine soil particles; some pollutants were absorbed and processed; organic matter built up and supported microscopic life. which in turn led larger crea» tures. The overall elTecr was to turn the northern reaches November 200? rcatunat ilisltilw S? 58 of the Persian Gulf into a haven for oysters and rich coral beds. on which the pearl divers of Kuwait made a living before oil was discovered. And before l990—a turning point in Saddam’s tightening control over the waterways of Iraq—more than half the fish consumed throughout the country came from the three main marshes in Iraq: Ham— mar, Central, and I-lawizeh [see map below]. n 1991. when Saddam's forces were driven out ofKuwait, niany Iraqi civilians revolted against their government but were defeated by the remnants of the Iraqi army. The rebels who could went into exile abroad, but the ones who couldn’t went into the marshes with the Ma'adan. The watery world of the marshes provided food and easy shelter, and the soggy ground proved to be an insurmount— able obstacle to the armored vehicles of the lraqi army. The marsh dwellers contin- ued to harass the army units until Saddam decided to take drastic action against them. And so began an incredible engineering feat of destruction. Hundreds of miles of canals were dug to divert the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates away from the marshes, choking off their source oflife. Acres upon acres of reeds were burned. Injust five years, the 8,000 square miles of Iraqi marshes were reduced to no more than 700 square miles along a sliver ofthe border between Iraq and Iran. Most of the rebels and the Ma'adan were forced to relocate to cities. There they were at the mercy of Saddam’s regime. which had absolute power over rations and therefore over their survival. Yet the marsh was losing its ability to sustain life. Fisheries suffered as spawning grounds in the marshes dwindled; with the loss of reeds to filter the water, more algal red tides swept over the region, killing more wildlife; thousands ofwater buffalo succumbed to pesticide poisoning. and the Ma’adau sold many others before being relocated into settlements. ' I Marsh Extent 2000 I Marsh new 1935 er the devastation. as far—reaching as it was. has proved to be reversible. The few people who had stayed in the marshes began breaching dams and tearing down embankments in late March 2003 even before the fall of Baghdad. Thus began the restoration ofthc marshes. In the past few years. the wetlands have begun to flourish. Iraqis continue to breach embankments: three breakthroughs on the Euphrates made in March ofthis year will help restore flow to the Ham— NM URM Iilsruitv November 200? mar Marsh. With foreign aid from around the world the marshes continue to grow. Today. almost 3,000 square miles of the marshes are flooded. Half of that reflOoded area seems to be in robust recovery; the other halfstill needs nursing. My colleagues and I have found encouraging numbers of endangered bird spec ies—includi ng Eurasian bittern, the Iraq babbler. pygmy cormorant. sacred ibis, and whiskered tern. The diversity of the wildlife improves daily. One major problem, however. precludes the possibility of complete reCovery; the loss of the seasonal freshwater pulses. Dams built in Turkey, Syria. and Iraq have, unfortunately, evened out the flow. Turkey began building its dams in the mountains of Kurdistan at the same time as the water was being diverted to dry the marshes. The so—called South- eastern Anatolia Project, which is nearly finished, will comprise more than twenty-two dams and nineteen hydroelectric plants. The dams, albeit beneficial to the economy of Turkey, stopped the freshwater pulses that drove the marshes‘ biodiversity. If the flow continues at its cur- rent, sluggish rate, some species that depend on the annual flush- ingwparticularly fishes—may not survive. Engineers working on the marsh restoration have devised a plan to replicate the pulses. The plan would direct water from the dam reservoirs into the marshes during late winter, when agricultural de- mand is minimized. The water would be held in the marshes into the spring season, regulated at the exit points and entrances to the marshes. Granted, such a scheme cannor truly replace the natural system. but the health ofthe marshes requires some kind of management, given that the dams upstream are likely to be in place for decades ifnot centuries to come. The ultimate solution, of course, requires cooperation with upstream countries to coordinate seasonal releases of water for the benefit of the marshes. Some people, myself included, are hopeful. After all, five years ago most people shook their heads skeptically when they heard about the restoration of the Iraqi marshes: yet subsrantial progress has already been made. The marshes are important not only for the health of the Gulf region. but also for their heritage as a rich cradle for both civilized and natural life. Ifmore peo- ple and more countries step up to help Iraq, this rare ecosystem can be maintained for global benefit. All that is needed is political will. CI ...
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