The Political Situation of the Marshes

During the twentieth century, Iraq’s marshes endured many political upheavals and conflicts. Beginning in the early 1950s, ruling Iraqi governments, with the aid of British engineers, introduced plans to drain the marshlands in order to extend arable land and irrigation projects and to control endemic diseases. This plan, however, was not completed.

In 1964 Wilfred Thesiger, the famous Middle East travel-writer and photographer who spent almost seven years in the marshes, wrote, “Soon the marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear” (Thesiger 1964:13). Thesiger’s prophecy was fulfilled in 1992, when Saddam Hussein, after quelling a major rebellion involving the Marsh Arabs, ordered the diversion of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates through construction of a large canal and several dams that sealed the wetlands from the rivers. As a result, the marshes were drained, converting the land into a desert and forcing the Marsh Arab people to abandon their homes. During this time, many of them went to refugee camps in Iran or moved to neighboring cities in Iraq.

In April 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘thist regime, returning Marsh Arabs flooded the dried land by tearing down the dams that had been built a decade earlier. Rivers started flowing back, and the marshes began to fill once more. Several projects are currently committed to assisting the Ma‘dan’s restoration of the marsh ecosystem and economy and the provision of infrastructure, including health care, education, and electricity; however, the future of the Marsh Arabs remains unclear.