An irritating fly was driving him mad. It bit him on his cheek and kept him from oiling the barrel of the hunting rifle he hadn’t used in 20 years.
Jabbar Hatem, an older man living in the southern city of Basra, began to rant and curse, waving his hand angrily: “May God damn the flies. And the regime that displaced us. And those responsible for burying us in this dump of place as though we were dead birds.”
Hatem’s wife wondered why he was shouting. Then she asked why he was oiling his rifle. “Are we returning home?” she questioned her husband.
By home she meant Iraq’s southern marshlands – they are also known as the Mesopotamian Marshes and are thought by some to be the original Garden of Eden, as referenced by the Bible. And her question is one that many former residents of the marshlands are asking after the current Iraqi government’s declaration of a plan to revive the marshlands.
Observers have been warning of a potential environmental disaster in the marshlands due to receding water levels and increased salinity in the area for some time. The marshes are also incredibly important to millions of migrating birds, which stop there on their way between hemispheres. Between the late 1980s and up until the mid 1990s, the former Iraqi government, led by Saddam Hussein, had tried to dry the marshlands out by rerouting rivers that fed the mid and southern marshlands. Hussein’s government justified this move because it said it was pursuing its political opponents in the region; it also conducted military campaigns in the area.
After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Hussein, plans were made for the revitalisation of the marshes and some of the area did regenerate. Reports indicate that in 2007, at the peak of the success of the regeneration project, almost half of the marshes looked to be recovering. However only a few years later, less than a third of the marshes were still looking good. Traditional water cycles had been disrupted so that salt water was not being flushed out of the marshes the way nature intended it to and drought meant the marshes were drying up again.
The politics of water as played out by neighbouring Middle Eastern countries have also had a devastating effect on Basra. To the east, Iran has built dams on rivers that bring fresh water into the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The less fresh water flowing into the Shatt al-Arab, the saltier – and less useable - the water gets on Basra’s farms.
The peak of migration out of the marshlands occurred in the mid 1990s and Hatem himself recollects the time he and his family were forced to leave the marshlands: “We carried some of our belongings after selling the animals and headed to Basra city. Because we thought our departure would only be temporary.” That was two decades ago.
“After 2003, with the collapse of the former regime which displaced us, we were confident of returning home to revive the marshlands. But this confidence has gone. Our marshlands are still barren and dry.” Hatem added that he still dreamed of returning home one day.
Alaa Hashim al-Badran, head of the union of agricultural engineers in Basra, told how currently low levels of water in the marshlands constitute an environmental disaster. The lack of water was worsened when neighbouring Iran diverted branches of the river that feeds the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Al-Badran warned of further disaster as the result of increasing salinity in the water there.
“Flooding into the marshlands in early 2003 was at around 40 percent. When farmers broke down damns to revive the marshlands it increased to around 80 percent between 2005 and 2006, only to drop again in 2007 to 24 percent,” Al-Badran explained.
“The capacity of the River Tigris dropped from 20,930 billion cubic meters per second to 7,660 billion cubic meters per second. This has had a direct impact on the marshlands,” he continued. “The ph percentage is now at 5,500 TPC [note: Total Phosphorus Content] which means that the salt concentration has increased to unprecedented and catastrophic levels.”
And Al-Badran only expects this to worsen because once the salt has penetrated into the ground, it is very difficult to remove.
Meanwhile a spokesperson at the Water Resources Authority said that 97 percent of the marshland was now turning into barren land. It has gone from spanning between 150,000 and 20,000 square kilometres to 2,000. The number of residents in the area dropped from 400,000 to 85,000, and then to only 30,000 in 2003.
This watery heaven area will turn into salt lakes unless the situation is quickly remedied,” the spokesperson said.
“Before they dried out the marshlands back in the 1980s, our lives were easier and more beautiful,” Hatem recalls sadly. “We had everything we needed and we lived in peace, hunting fish and birds, growing rice and milking the animals we bred around our floating reed houses. Now I fear my rifle will rust before I use it again. But we must return some day,” he said, trailing off into his own nostalgic thoughts.