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Iraq: Marsh Arabs and ecological resilience – the legacy of conflict

20 June 2023

Fatima, also known as Umm Ahmed, is a 40-year-old woman who has lived her entire life in the marshes of Maysan Governorate in southern Iraq. Fatima usually helps her husband harvest reeds, which are used in the making of traditional mats required for the roofs and floors of marsh houses. However, recent droughts have dried up the rivers, so Fatima and her husband can no longer collect sufficient reeds. 

Spanning some 20,000 square kilometres when seasonally flooded, the marshes of southern Iraq are a complex tapestry of waterways, rivers, marshes, reedbeds and islands formed where the Tigris and Euphrates meet and empty into the Gulf. Made up of three principal areas, the al-Hammar Marshes, the Central Marshes and the al-Huwaizah Marshes, this is the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East. Over the centuries, Marsh Arabs have developed a unique way of life that is in tune with the marshland ecosystem and its seasonal cycles. In contrast to rural livelihoods in other parts of Iraq, fishing, buffalo herding, rice cultivation and reed harvesting are the mainstays of marsh communities.

Fatima notes that ‘things became worse when we lost five of the eight buffaloes we owned due to the drought. My husband is struggling to buy fodder, especially since our son, Ahmed, does not work regularly.’ Fatima concludes: ‘We do not want to leave the marshes because they are our ancestral home, but we have been left on our own to face the forces (sulta) of nature.’

‘The Iraqi government considers us second-class citizens. After forced migration to the city, we faced problems and discrimination from residents who consider us an inferior race.’

Like Fatima, other Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq have experienced multiple and interlinked forms of ecological destruction, which have all but wiped out their way of life. What makes the situation of Marsh Arabs even more challenging is the way in which their unique relationship to the environment has been the target of state-sponsored violent conflict. It has been through the deliberate degradation of marsh ecology that Marsh Arabs have been controlled, oppressed and eliminated.

A boatman from the Hawizeh Marshes of Iraq. Credit: Khalid Tawfeeq Hadi/UNDP Iraq via Water Alternatives/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

In the second half of the twentieth century, Marsh Arabs were subjected to sustained state-sponsored violent conflict. In the 1980s, the area was a focal point for some of the fiercest fighting of the Iran-Iraq war. Like the inhabitants of the south of Iraq more generally, most Marsh Arabs adhere to Shi’a Islam and were thus the object of distrust and oppression by the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein. 

In 1991, following Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War, Marsh Arabs joined an attempted uprising, which was violently supressed. In subsequent years, some 40,000 Marsh Arabs fled to Iran while many others were internally displaced. It is estimated that the marshes’ population declined from almost half a million in the 1950s to about 20,000 in the 1990s.

A Marsh Arab man on his boat, in the Chabaish Marshes, Nasiriyah, Iraq. Credit: Asad Niazi.

As local activist Mustapha Hashem points out, those who were internally displaced faced new hardships in Iraq’s cities. He adds: ‘the Iraqi government considers us second-class citizens. After forced migration to the city, we faced problems and discrimination from residents who consider us an inferior race and call us Ma’dan or Shrouk [‘those from the east’].’  

A 2003 Human Rights Watch report concluded that the persecution of Marsh Arabs by the Ba’ath regime constituted a crime against humanity. ‘Marsh Arabs have been singled out for even more direct assault,’ the report claims. ‘Mass arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and execution of political opponents have been accompanied by ecologically catastrophic drainage of the marshlands and the large-scale and systematic forcible transfer of part of the local population.’  

By systematically degrading the ecosystem with canals and dams constructed specifically to drain the water systems, and by setting reedbeds on fire or poisoning lagoons, the Ba’ath regime sought to target local minority communities and thus to eradicate a population that has lived in these ancestral lands for many centuries.

The Chibaish Marshes pictured in 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change and the marshes

Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, attempts to reflood and restore the marshes have been carried out, leading to the regeneration of some 30–40 per cent of the original marshland area. 

The marshes, however, now face a second man-made crisis brought on by the dual pressures of climate change and dam construction. The UN Environment Programme ranks Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to decreasing water and food availability, and extreme temperatures. Lower rainfall and higher temperatures are causing increased salinity levels in freshwater sources, which affects humans, animals and plant life on the marshes. These environmental pressures have been further exacerbated by upstream dam construction in both Iran and Turkey. This push for hydropower development included the building of a 56-kilometre weir along the Iran-Iraq border in 2009, as well as the construction of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates as part of Turkey’s South-eastern Anatolia Project. 

The situation in southern Iraq is yet another example of how climate change begets new forms of violent conflict affecting minority groups. Tensions between marsh communities and local farmers have risen in recent years as buffalo herders, faced with dried-up riverbeds, have been forced to move their buffaloes into local fields. It is likely that, as climate change places ever greater pressures on Marsh Arab livelihoods, violent conflict may increase.  

Meanwhile, Fatima continues to ponder what the future holds for her community in the face of drought and discrimination. Fatima remarks:  

This land gave me a source of income during times of prosperity. It would be ungrateful of me to abandon it because of this crisis. I hope that water in the marshes will return to its previous level so that smiles will return to the people’s faces. 

Fatima’s words reflect the resilience of the Marsh Arab communities in the face of climate change, and their desire to remain on the land (and waters) of southern Iraq. Fatima’s expression of hope and commitment to her homeland is, furthermore, a testament to the deep-rooted sense of cultural belonging of those Marsh Arabs who are refusing to become climate migrants. 

The effects of climate change are nevertheless forcing Marsh Arabs to abandon their livelihoods and look to Iraq’s cities for work and a new life. In a country such as Iraq, where the security situation is volatile and the state is weak, climate migrants can have a potentially destabilizing impact on the country’s fragile peace. It is thus paramount that we listen to Iraqis such as Fatima and find means to empower Marsh Arabs by giving them the tools to stay in the marshes and adapt to changing ecological and climate realities.

We are grateful to members of Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: A Marsh Arab woman holds a banner reading, ‘Water is the secret of life. I’m thirsty’, in the Chabaish Marshes, Nasiriyah, Iraq. 30 July 2022. Credit: Asad Niazi.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Achref Chibani