“A Gift from God”: Iraqi Engineers Revitalize Marshes Drained by Hussein

October 29th, 2003 - by admin

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran / Washington Post –


ZAYAD, Iraq (October 11, 2003) — The surging water from the Euphrates River first quenched the desiccated soil around this village. Then, with a steady crescendo, it smothered farming tracts, inundated several homes and enveloped the landscape to the horizon.

“Hamdulillah ,” intoned Salim Sherif Kerkush, the stout village sheik. Thank God.

Thin reeds now sprout on the glassy surface. Aquatic birds build nests on tiny islands. And lanky young boys in flowing tunics spend the first few hours of each day as generations of adolescent males in their families have: gliding across the water in narrow wooden boats to collect fish trapped in homemade nets.

“The water is our life,” Kerkush said as he gazed at the marsh that now comes within a few feet of his house and stretches as far as the eye can see. “It is a gift from God to have it back.”

A dozen years after Saddam Hussein ordered the vast marshes of southeastern Iraq drained, transforming idyllic wetlands into a barren moonscape to eliminate a hiding place for Shiite Muslim political opponents, Iraqi engineers have turned on the spigot again.

The flow is not what it once was — new dams have weakened the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers that feed the marshes — but the impact has been profound. As the blanket of water gradually expands, it is quickly nourishing plants, animals and a way of life for Marsh Arabs that Hussein had tried so assiduously to extinguish.

In Zayad, a tiny hamlet about 210 miles southeast of Baghdad that was one of the first places to be flooded, residents have rushed to reclaim their traditions. Kerkush drove to the port city of Basra to buy a wooden boat known as a mashoof . His children assembled fish nets. Other relatives scoped out locations to build a house of reeds.

The marsh has once again assumed its omnipresent role in the village. Women clad in black head-to-toe abayas wade into the water to wash clothes. The mullet found in the murky depths, though small and bony, is grilled for dinner every night. Swamp grasses are cut to feed the cows and sheep that will eventually be traded for water buffalo.

“Everyone is so happy,” Kerkush said as he watched his son stand in a mashoof and steer it like a gondolier with a long wooden pole. “We are starting to live like we used to, not the way Saddam wanted us to live.”

A Simple Life Destroyed
Born in 1949, Kerkush remembers a childhood identical to those described by his father and his grandfather. It was, he believes, a way of life little changed since the days of the ancient Sumerians who lived near the marshes and were the first humans to practice irrigated farming.

The progress of the 20th century — the advent of cars and computers, of television and telephones — did not penetrate the dense reed beds and narrow waterways that protected their village.

“It was a very simple life,” he recalled. “We would fish. We would collect the reeds. We would plant rice.”

They rarely ventured more than a few villages from home, and outsiders rarely ventured into the marshes. In hamlets such as Zayad, home to about 120 families, everyone is related and marriage among cousins is common.

The marsh dwellers were largely unknown to the outside world, even to other Iraqis, until British explorer Wilfred Thesiger chronicled the seven years he spent with them in his 1964 book “The Marsh Arabs.” The marshes, he wrote, were a place where one could encounter “stars reflected in dark water, the croakings of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine.”

Although Hussein’s government built dams along the Tigris and Euphrates in the 1970s, and paved roads through the wetlands in the 1980s to move supplies to the front lines during the eight-year war with Iran, the marshlands remained largely intact. In 1990, an estimated 300,000 people lived there.

Everything changed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Shiite Muslims in the south rose up against Hussein’s government. Some Shiite leaders, particularly those who sneaked into the country from Iran, hid in the marshes, which were out of the reach of Hussein’s tanks and artillery. The Shiite leaders were welcomed — and aided — by the Shiite Marsh Arabs.

Even after Hussein’s army quashed the revolt by slaughtering thousands of Shiites and attacking their villages, the president was bent on retribution. He ordered the marshes drained.

To subvert nature, he approved the construction of a massive network of canals, pipelines and dams. State-owned businesses and private firms were required to dispatch all their bulldozers to work on the projects. Sunnis from Hussein’s strongholds in central Iraq, including Tikrit and Fallujah, were encouraged to travel south to help dig.

The engineering feat was enormous — and remarkably successful. The Euphrates, which spilled entirely into the southern half of the marshes, was diverted into a wide new canal called the Mother of All Battles River that stretched more than 100 miles around the former wetlands. Farther upstream, billions of gallons of Euphrates water was redirected in another canal and dumped into a depression in the desert.

The same strategy was employed on the Tigris River, parching the northern and eastern sections of the marshes.

Before Hussein’s drainage project, Iraq’s marshes were the Middle East’s largest wetland, covering about 7,500 square miles. By the late 1990s, satellite images indicated that less than 10 percent of Iraq’s marshland had any water. What remained was miles of parched, salty earth covered with clumps of scrub brush.

With no way to fish or farm, no reeds or birds, legions of Marsh Arabs had no choice but to leave the only place they considered home. Tens of thousands fled as refugees to Iran. By 1993, the United Nations estimated there were only 50,000 marsh dwellers left, and their numbers continued to dwindle over the following years.

In Zayad, the water level dropped as if someone had pulled a plug, residents said. Soon there was only mud. The reeds died. The birds flew away. The water buffalo had no place to roam.

Unlike their neighbors, the people of Zayad opted to stick it out instead of moving. Hunger was rampant. Some were forced to sell their possessions for food. Reed homes fell into disrepair because there were no building materials. Instead, the villagers built mud-brick huts. “We went from having everything to having nothing,” Kerkush said. “Our land turned to desert. How can anyone live in the desert?”

Redirecting the River
In mid-April, a few days after Hussein’s government fell, Ali Shaheen returned to his job as director of the Irrigation Department in Nasiriyah. Located about 25 miles northwest of Zayad, Nasiriyah was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the war. But with the hostilities over and Shiites firmly in control of the local government, he decided to try to reverse the damage Hussein had wrought.

With a US military escort, he drove to Garmat Bani Hassan, a town a mile away from Zayad. There, he ordered creaky metal gates on the Euphrates to be cranked open for the first time since 1991.

Shaheen, a short, balding civil engineer with a stubble-covered face, did the same thing with two other gates before embarking on a bigger engineering challenge — redirecting the Euphrates. He requisitioned several Irrigation Department bulldozers and smashed the dam Hussein had constructed to divert water to the Mother of All Battles River. For good measure, he had Hussein’s river blocked off with a mountain of dirt.

He had no orders to redirect the rivers. There was no functioning Irrigation Ministry at the time. But he assumed he was doing what the Marsh Arabs wanted.

“Drying the marshes was a crime,” said Shaheen, who joined the Irrigation Department in 1998, after the canals and dams were built. “I felt I needed to do whatever I could to restore what Saddam destroyed.”

As the Euphrates returned to its original course, water surged toward Zayad and other villages on the western side of the marshes that are closest to the river’s mouth. The arid flats were covered with more than three feet of water, swallowing the scrub brush and a few homes that were built after the marshes were dried.

Shaheen calculated that more than 1 quadrillion gallons — a 1 followed by 15 zeroes — were needed to fill the Euphrates side of the marshes. But the flow at Nasiriyah, which had been 106,000 gallons per second before 1991, was down to 21,000 gallons per second because of new dams and irrigation canals built in Iraq, Syria and Turkey over the past decade. “The water we have is not enough,” he said.

By midsummer, the water’s advance had slowed. Villages just a few miles east of Zayad are still dry, with residents wondering when they will be able to ride a mashoof again.

If the flow does not increase, Shaheen predicted it will take more than 100 years to flood the marshes. “It’s not an issue of opening the gates and dams over here,” he said. “We need more water from upstream.”

Iraq’s new minister of water resources, Latif Rashid, said increasing the flow will require Syria and Turkey to reduce their consumption. “We’d like our just share,” he said. “They should respect our needs.”

Shaheen and other Iraqi water experts said they believe Hussein told Syria and Turkey to take as much water as they pleased — a policy that many say now needs to be reversed. Compared to the mid-1980s, the volume of water flowing into Iraq through the Euphrates has fallen 50 percent, according to the Water Ministry.

Rashid said he was shocked to see the extent of the destruction when he recently flew over the former marshlands with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq. “It’s hard to imagine how catastrophic it is,” he said.

He said he has set up a commission to develop a plan to restore the marshes in a way that ensures that new farms and villages are not flooded and that upstream demand does not deprive the wetlands of sustenance. But he warned that results would not come soon.

“It’s not a question of opening a dam or turning a knob,” he said. “This is going to take a long time.”

Restoring Marsh Life
Sitting atop a reed mat on his concrete porch, Kerkush said he dreams of once again building a mudheef — a long, domed-roof structure made of tightly woven reeds that Marsh Arabs used to receive visitors. Clad in a crisp white tunic and a black-and-white head scarf, he would sit inside and entertain other sheiks with black coffee and tales of days past. “The mudheef was center of our social life,” he said. “We didn’t need television.”

Because of new roads and with his shop in a nearby trading town, outside influences have permeated the marshes faster than the water. He has heard of the Internet and would like to “bring it” to the village. “I’d like a mudheef and the Internet,” he said with an optimistic gleam. “I don’t want to live entirely in the past.”

When his son piloted his boat back to shore, Kerkush walked over to examine the morning’s catch, just as his father did years ago. The metal bucket was half empty. The tiny mullet inside would be worth no more than 2,000 Iraqi dinars — about $1 — at the nearby market. It was not his son’s fault, Kerkush said. “The marsh is not fully back to life,” he said. “The fish have not had enough time to grow.”

The rest of the marsh is similarly nascent. The reeds are not yet sufficient to rebuild the huts destroyed by Hussein’s army. The birds that have returned are not the right species to trap.

But as the scion of a clan that has lived here for perhaps 5,000 years, Kerkush said he is willing to be patient while engineers and politicians figure out how to pump more water into the marshes.

“Saddam did everything he could to kill us,” he said. “You cannot recover from that right away.”

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