Damming Eden

As a massive dam nears completion in Turkey, residents downriver in the idyllic Mesopotamian Marshes prepare to see their homeland destroyed—again.

Published October 24, 2017

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“This one is mine,” Kazem Hassan Daoud, 63, points to a black buffalo swimming with four others among the reeds a few steps away. Only their withers and horns are visible above the opaque water as they pass the man, standing with two of his grandchildren on the bank outside their family home. All around them, a vast wilderness stretches to the horizon. Daoud makes a loud, throaty sound, and his buffalo turns back to look at its master. “See? It recognizes me,” he says, a smile splitting his tanned, wrinkled face, before he ducks back into the one-room reed house where other family members are sitting around fresh bread, sweetened buffalo milk, and hot tea. For the buffalo herders of Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes (also known as the Ahwar of Southern Iraq), it’s always teatime.

Located in southeastern Iraq, the Mesopotamian Marshes—consisting of three distinct, neighboring wetlands called Hammar, Central, and Hawizeh—are an oasis in the middle of the desert. Together, they fluctuate around 3,000 square kilometers. As far as the eye can see: dark, greenish water; emerald reeds; black buffaloes; and white egrets. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities Ur, Uruk, and Eridu are not far. Between the fourth and third millennia BCE, they developed into some of the most important urban centers in Mesopotamia and saw the early development of writing, monumental architecture, and complex societies, causing some scholars to declare the area the cradle of civilization. The Bible locates the Garden of Eden nearby and, as night falls on the marshes, it is difficult to imagine a more peaceful place—far from Iraq’s usual turmoil of fighting and bombings.

This short video depicts scenes from the Central and Hammar Marshes, and features local man Abu Haidar improvising a traditional song. Video by Emilienne Malfatto

The roughly 125,000 people who live here—scattered in isolated settlements deep in the marshes or in small cities on the banks of the rivers—are deeply passionate about their paradise at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, about 170 kilometers northwest of where the water drains into the Persian Gulf. Yet they lost their marshes once and only through a sudden twist of political fate got them back. Now, with the construction of a gigantic dam in southeastern Turkey called the Ilisu underway, which will starve the already-depleted marshes of water—and with the imminent, secondary threat of a similar dam being built in Iran—they’re poised to lose them all over again. If that happens, the so-called Marsh Arabs will become refugees—but refugees cast away from a peaceful enclave and into a war-torn zone.

Water is relatively “good” these days, explains Daoud, with a gesture toward the stretch of stagnant water outside the house in the Central Marsh. Though not as good as it used to be, and the threat of a shortage is constant. Both the Euphrates and the Tigris wend through Turkey and Syria before reaching Iraq. While the Euphrates has been choked by dozens of major dams dating back to the 1970s, the Tigris flowed more freely up until construction began on the Ilisu in 2006. By some estimations, when it is complete and begins filling—projected for the end of 2018, though the date has shifted repeatedly—it could reduce Iraq’s annual water income by almost half. Downstream in the marshes, many fear the consequences. Although official agreements about the sharing of water exist between the countries, they are hardly respected. Droughts are naturally occurring here, but have become more frequent and severe, compounding the problem; the marshes almost dried up in 2009 and 2015.

After a breakfast of tea, hot milk, and fresh bread, three buffalo breeders rest inside their home near the Central Marsh, waiting out the rain. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

After a breakfast of tea, hot milk, and fresh bread, three buffalo breeders rest inside their home near the Central Marsh, waiting out the rain. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

“If the water level goes down, we may have to leave,” says Daoud’s nephew Ali Murad Hassan, 29, between sips from a glass of piping hot tea. For a few seconds, a tinkling noise fills the room, as everyone stirs sugar into their strong, black tea. Hassan, his two brothers, and their uncle are sitting on the carpet-covered floor. Scruffy children laugh and play around them. The openwork reed home is covered with a magenta tarpaulin to block the winter wind and humidity, which casts the whole scene in an ethereal dark-pink light. Spring will come soon, bringing hotter, drier conditions—and even more potential for water shortages.

As the men pause in their conversation, lost in their own thoughts about that eventuality, Zahra Abdel Hussein, Hassan’s wife and the mother of his seven children, is already preparing the next kettle before returning outside to finish baking bread. While the men worry about the future, she must carry on with life’s more immediate demands.

Women bring ashore reeds that they have gathered in the Central Marsh. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

Women bring ashore reeds that they have gathered in the Central Marsh. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

The round-faced, smiling woman wears a long dress and hijab, thanks to the relative freedom women enjoy in the marshes. In the local towns, women must wear a black abaya—a full-body veil. “It’s way better like this,” she says laughing, as she shapes dough into round, flat pieces, and then places them against the walls of the oven. The family’s tennur, an outdoor clay stove, has been replaced by a new one fueled by gas. It’s one of their only modern luxuries.

In 2015, Hassan and his family lost more than a third of their livestock because of the drought. For several months, there was desert and mud instead of water and reeds. A slim, black-eyed, and brown-skinned man, always ready to joke, Hassan grows dark when reaching this subject. The water was so low that it concentrated and became too salty, killing plants, reeds, and animals. Saltwater intrusion from the coast worsened the situation. The buffaloes drank from the marsh and became sick from the excessive salt. “They were poisoned,” he says. That was a catastrophe: along with some gold jewelry, the new stove, and the house, the livestock is the family’s only capital.

Outside, barefoot in the mud, Hassan’s oldest sons Muhammad and Sajjad, around eight and 10, are trying to climb a buffalo. The animals are part of the family, Hassan explains. They live in a pen that smells like freshly cut grass and manure, just outside the house. The animal is too high, the kids too small; they give up and go cuddle and clamor over a newborn buffalo lying in cut weeds instead. Below the grass, the mud, and the droppings, there is asphalt. Hassan’s house is built on what used to be a military road: a relic from the 1990s when there was no more water. When the marshes had become a desert.

Muhammad (left) and Sajjad Ali laugh during a boat ride to visit their cousins in the Central Marsh. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

Muhammad (left) and Sajjad Ali laugh during a boat ride to visit their cousins in the Central Marsh. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

Before the Ilisu dam loomed on the horizon, the Mesopotamian Marshes faced a different threat. The marshes are located close to the Iranian border, and in the 1980s, hosted some of the most intense fighting during the Iran-Iraq War. “The landscape slowly adapted to military activities and became a war zone,” explains Hassan al-Janabi, Iraq’s minister of water resources. Soldiers built dikes and roads through the marshes, diverting water in the process. Some Marsh Arabs, who are mostly Shia, evacuated; others stayed and attempted to carry on, while a contingent sided with the rebels and deserters who had fled to the marshes in an uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

In 1991, Hussein decided to show marsh residents that the time had come for punishment. His army took over the area, killing civilians and draining the whole place, forcing thousands of people into exile. The soldiers built even more dikes, soil embankments, and roads, as well as canals and artificial rivers, to divert water away from the marshes. In some areas, water was contaminated or intentionally poisoned. The Marsh Arabs scattered to Baghdad, Mosul, or refugee camps across the border in Iran. In total, half a million people were displaced as a result of what the United Nations Environment Programme called a “major ecological disaster, broadly comparable in extent and rapidity to the drying of the Aral Sea.”

“Saddam’s jets were bombing houses, people, and animals,” Daoud recalls. He and his family fled to Baghdad, roughly 450 kilometers away. They ended up in the Fudhaliyah suburb, in the southeast of the city, close to the Diyala River. Some of his nephews found work in construction, though times were hard. “There was no life for us in Baghdad,” he says.

At the same time, a campaign of dam building in neighboring countries was underway, concentrated on the Euphrates. The Mesopotamian Marshes seemed doomed.

map showing the location of the Mesopotamian Marshes, Iraq

Illustration by Mark Garrison

Then, in 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq and the Baath regime crumbled. As fighting was still ongoing in many Iraqi cities, hundreds of people gathered in the marshes and hacked down the dikes and embankments that blocked the rivers. Jassim al-Asadi, an engineer and the local managing director of Nature Iraq, an organization that advocates for the preservation of the marshes, was among them. “There was no plan to restore the marshes,” he explains. “The locals took the initiative because this marsh is their life.” Though diminished, the water returned, and, amazingly, nature rapidly took over.

“After 12 years of complete drought, we thought the seed soil bank of the marshes had maybe suffered irreparable damages,” says al-Janabi. “But after only a few months of re-flooding, nature grew again in an incredible way.” Daoud, Hassan, and their family members weren’t involved in breaking the barriers, but eventually returned from Baghdad, as the capital was sinking further into violence.

The nature, the freedom, the buffaloes—Hassan can go on for a while when asked about what he missed the most. The family rarely goes to Baghdad now unless forced to—they are afraid of the security situation there and their memories of the shelling and fighting they experienced when the US-led coalition invaded the capital are still fresh. They are happy here, Hassan repeats, smiling, as he boards his small, motorized boat to visit his brother Haidar. He lives five minutes away, on an artificial island recently built by the Iraqi government as part of a plan championed by Nature Iraq and the Center for Restoration of Iraqi Marshes and Wetlands to protect and rehabilitate the marsh. This area, called Ishan Gubba by locals, is filled with friends and family. Everyone knows everyone, and is somehow related.

This time lapse illustrates how the boundaries of the Mesopotamian Marshes have fluxed from 1984 to 2016. Photos by Landsat/Copernicus/Google Earth

That’s not to say that life is easy—there is no school, no health center, no electricity network. Getting drinkable water means going every day to Chibayish, the nearest town, roughly 30 minutes away by boat, between the Central and Hammar Marshes. And the house generator provides only a few hours of electricity each day—enough to charge mobile phones and run a fan. Temperatures can exceed 50 °C in the summer. And, now, there is the persistent uncertainty and fear that the place may dry up.

Following the fall of Hussein’s regime, it looked as though the marshes’ revival would be one of the extremely few happy-ending stories resulting from the invasion of Iraq. But soon, people came to realize that with the reduced flow from the rivers, the marshes would never be quite the same again.

Daoud remembers when, in the 1970s, the marshes were triple the size they are today, with a permanent surface area of 10,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Lebanon. During the wet season, the Hammar and Hawizeh would expand an extra 50 percent. There was a lot of water and many fish, he recalls. The water was so pure that people would drink directly from the marshes.

To the north, Turkey has long been criticized by its neighbors and the international community for hoarding water and contributing to conflict and instability in the region. Some activists believe the Ilisu dam is primarily a weapon against the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, as it will flood a large Kurdish area. As for water flow, the Turkish government’s plan is to release as little as 60 cubic meters per second at the Ilisu dam—the river’s typical flow is 480 cubic meters per second. “Of course we don’t agree on that,” says al-Janabi, the Iraqi water resources minister, who is engaged in negotiations with Turkey. Whether the operators of the dam have any concern for communities downriver is unclear—they ignored requests for interviews.

Inas (left) and Baneen Ali emerge from the family home in the Central Marsh in the early morning. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

Inas (left) and Baneen Ali emerge from the family home in the Central Marsh in the early morning. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

To the east, the situation with Iran is no better. Water once seeped into the Hawizeh Marsh, which straddles the border; but in 2005, Iran built a dike parallel to the border, preventing water from flowing. The new dam—called the Daryan—on Iran’s Diyala (or Sirwan) River, a tributary of the Tigris, is expected to be completed in 2018, further endangering the Mesopotamian Marshes.

Even within Iraq’s borders, water management is flawed. The government has a reputation for prioritizing agriculture over the environment and allocating most of the water resources to wasteful intensive irrigation practices and to the oil industry. Cronyism is also an issue. “If the minister of water resources is, for example, from Najaf, then he will give a lot of water to Najaf and nothing to us,” says a local activist who prefers not to be named.

The Iraqi government’s one real push to preserve the marshes from disappearing came in 2010, when workers built soil embankments to force water from the Euphrates into the marshes and prevent it from continuing downstream to the Persian Gulf. This guarantees more water in the marshes, but also makes it more stagnant. In the 1970s, the salinity level stayed roughly around 200 parts per million (ppm), according to al-Asadi’s figures. Today, an undrinkable 2,500 ppm is considered the norm. It sometimes reaches 7,000 ppm, and, in 2015, went up to 20,000 ppm in some areas.

Ali Murad Hassan charges a phone in his reed house in Ishan Gubba, deep in the Central Marsh. He has set up a generator outside his house that provides a few hours of electricity each day. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

Ali Murad Hassan charges a phone in his reed house in Ishan Gubba, deep in the Central Marsh. He has set up a generator outside his house that provides a few hours of electricity each day. Photo by Emilienne Malfatto

The marshes were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in July 2016, in recognition of the region’s outstanding value, yet none of the requirements of the inscription, such as designating a committee to manage the marshes, have been fulfilled, says Ali al Karkhi, a member of the human rights organization Iraqi Social Forum (ISF). And the Ilisu dam project has not been stopped, as the ISF and partner groups have been campaigning for. The inscription did at least give more visibility to the marshes, which are also painted on murals in Baghdad and featured on new 50,000-dinar bills.

In the marshes, people feel mostly impotent—and angry. “When they [Turkey] let the river[s] flow, we have water. When they don’t, we don’t have water,” sums up Sheikh Loubnan Abdulrazaq al-Khaiwan, 60, the most important traditional authority in Chibayish. He and other men from the community gather for hours under arches made entirely of reeds in his mudhif—a traditional common house—sitting on the floor while drinking tea or Arabic coffee with cardamom, discussing current affairs, and dispensing justice. Women are not usually allowed inside the mudhifs, but exceptions can be made for foreigners. And the water issue often comes up in conversation.

Every weekend, buses arrive in Chibayish from Baghdad or Babel, packed with tourists wanting to see the marshes and enjoy a day in nature, away from Iraq’s trouble. War is never far, though, and most Iraqis are too busy surviving to rally behind the threatened environment. Every few days, coffins carrying martyrs from nearby towns who died in Mosul pass through Chibayish on their way home.

“Look at Iraq, there is no future here,” says a local resident buying date sweets in the market. His own uncle was executed by the Baath regime, yet he adds in a low voice, “Honestly, it was better when Saddam was here.”

In Ishan Gubba, Daoud doesn’t really like to discuss the question of whether life was better under the Baath regime. Hussein destroyed the marshes, now Turkey is destroying them, with Iran next in line. That’s all he knows. He is old and tired, he adds, running his tanned hand over his forehead, which bears a dark, permanent bruise. It’s the mark of religious people—the trace of the torba, a stone on which Shia Muslims rest their foreheads when praying. Does he pray for the marshes to stay alive? They could use a miracle.