From Al Jazeera. Any opinions expressed are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting a community in Iraq’s historic marshes.

For years, people there have relied on the wetlands for herding water buffaloes.

But the pandemic is now threatening their livelihood.

Al Jazeera‘s Katia Lopez-Hodoyan reports:

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The birds, flowers and buffalo are all returning, thanks to heavy rains last winter. Now, locals say, federal funds are needed to improve infrastructure and state services, and to guard against potential flooding.

“I had lost all hope,” says Sawadi Najim, a 54-year-old local of the Jabayesh marshes in southern Iraq. “I thought I was going to see this beautiful place become a desert.”

The drought started in 2012 in Iraq’s famed southern marshes and reached its dry peak around 2015. People lost their businesses and their homes, says Najim, who was forced to leave the area he was born and raised in two years ago. His ten buffaloes went blind, then died of hunger and thirst. “I used to depend on them to make my living,” explains Najim, who moved to the city. “And I also had to stop fishing when the water levels dropped.”

Jabayesh lies about 95 kilometres east of Nasiriya, the capital of Dhi Qar province and covers an area of about 600 square kilometres. The marshes were drained by former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, in the 1990s in an attempt to starve revolutionary Iraqis out of the area and even though waterways were unblocked after 2003, the marshes – home to unique birds, fish and plants as well as farmers and fishermen – have never been the same since. More recently it has been nature that has been an enemy of the marshes.

But, critics suggest, man-made mismanagement of water resources has also played a part. “There’s been a lack of understanding about the seriousness of water management,” suggests Mohsen al-Shammari, a former federal minister of water. “Other useless issues” were the main obstacle to the work of the water ministry when he was in charge, al-Shammari suggests. Additionally there was no unified position on how to deal with Turkey and Iran and their damming practices because of internal political divisions, he notes. The fact that the extremist group known as the Islamic State had control of a major dam in Syria, and caused the level of the Euphrates river to fall, was certainly not helpful either.

But then came 2018 and the heavy winter rains that replenished the marshes. “Water levels are at about 80 percent,” Jassim al-Asadi, a senior manager with Nature Iraq, an local conservation organisation, reports. “In the past, they were at 20 percent, at best.”

The streams and rivers that feed the marshes have been almost full since last winter and the Haditha dam has also been able to release water into them, al-Asadi says. In fact, while locals no longer need be concerned about drought, they should be worried about potential flooding this winter if there is similar or more rainfall, he cautioned.

The Ministry of Water Resources has already been digging trenches that would drain any excess floodwater from dams into the marshes, al-Asadi adds.

For now, the marshes are once again teeming with life. Buffalo herders like Najim have been able to return home, as have fishermen and the craftspeople who use the marsh reeds to produce goods for sale. There has also been an increase in visitors coming to the marshes and boat and restaurant operators are also thriving.

“Thanks to low salinity levels in the water, we have more plant and animal diversity too,” al-Asadi says. Fish species that were thought to have died out have returned, birds are migrating from Europe for the first time in years and water lilies are also growing in greater numbers than ever before.

What the marshes need now is better management, locals say. Since 2016, the marshes have been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list but because of the security crisis caused by the extremist Islamic State group, the federal government had no time to concern itself with tourist facilities or the provision of state services in this area.

However Iraq’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, Abdulamir Hamdani, says that this year around IQD15 billion (around US$12 million) has been allocated in the federal budget to work on infrastructure projects in and around the marshes.

That includes a 37.5 hectare centre for tourist accommodation, which will include a museum focused on the nature and culture of the marshes. After construction is finished the project will also be offered up to investors. “We need to go into partnership with the private sector, the same way other countries do,” Hamdani told NIQASH.

Before any of that happens though, local man Sawadi Najim is just happy to be home. “I feel healthy and happy, “ he says. “I have rebuilt my house [his traditional-style house is made out of reeds and floats on the water] and I look out and see birds and buffaloes bathing in the water. The fishermen have started to return,” he noted, satisfied, ”and soon the sons of my tribe will be back too.”

Amar and Coca-Cola Foundation Start Project to Replenish Water in the Iraqi Marshes

The AMAR International Charitable Foundation has begun construction of a domestic-wastewater-purification system in the Mesopotamian Marshes, where all 30 houses in the village of Al Adhaima will be connected to the network.

The project, which is being funded as part of The Coca-Cola Company’s global “Replenish” water initiative, will employ traditional methods, largely using the area’s natural reed beds as a filtration system for the village’s wastewater. The urgent need for the scheme has only been increased by a summer of drought, which has hit water levels and quality badly.

The Mesopotamian Marshes, thought by many to be the location for the Garden of Eden, are a rare wetland at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. As well as being a unique ecosystem, the area is home to around 300,000 Marsh Arabs, whose own rich culture centres on the Marshes’ natural resources.

Sadly, the area has a long and troubled history of drainage, drought and displacement. In the 1990s Saddam Hussein drained around 90% of the Marshes in an effort to crush the Marsh Arabs. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. After his fall from power in 2003, the waterways were reopened and the Marshes replenished, and the locals began to return.

But the recovery has been only partial. This year reduced river flows, compounded by drought, have led to a drying-up of parts of the Marshes, as well as increased water salinity. Pollution is also a growing problem as population and industry grow but aging infrastructure struggles and decays. The agriculture and livestock that underpin local livelihoods are under severe threat.

Many farmers in the marshes keep water buffalo, but high water salinity is depleting herds.

AMAR’s Replenish Project is seeking to tackle some of these issues in the Hammar Marshes. It will use the existing natural reedbed systems for the final process in the collection and treatment of domestic sewage and wastewater. Once treated, aerated and filtered, the cleaned water will be redirected to the river, where it will flow into and recharge the Marshes. The project is being carefully monitored and evaluated in close co-ordination with the Directorate of the Environment, who has been part of the project team throughout.

AMAR has long been an advocate for the survival of the Marshes and its people. In 2016 it successfully campaigned for the area’s recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, affording it an increased level of protection. In 2012 AMAR ran a Heritage Project in the marshes, funded by the US State Department, which included the publication of a book documenting the history and culture of the region, The Southern Mesopotamian Marshlands: Reclaiming the Heritage of a Civilisation.

The Replenish Project seeks to continue this work. It will improve the water quality of the targeted area of the Hammar Marshes and preserve the unique marshland environment. This, in turn, will support the Marsh Arabs in re-establishing their ability to manage the marshes, and sustain livelihoods there, which has been so disrupted by historical persecution.

The reintroduction of managed reedbeds, which can also be used for farming and harvesting, also provides the local community with raw materials for traditional crafts and construction techniques. As such, this project has the potential to position the local community as a cultural hub and centre for access to the Marshes.

A woman collects reeds for the construction of a mudhif, a traditional reed house.

AMAR will be working closely with The Coca-Cola Foundation throughout the project. Once the pilot scheme is complete, with further funding and support from the Iraqi Ministry of Environment and local Directorates, it hopes to roll out the project as a sustainable model in other marshland communities.

(Source: AMAR)

By Hassan al-Shanoun for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The Iraqi government is committed to keeping the Mesopotamian Marshes on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Located in the southern part of the country, the marshes were added to UNESCO’s list in July 2016. Previously listed Iraqi World Heritage sites are the city of Ashur, the city of Hatra, the Erbil Citadel and the city of Samarra.

Although the Iraqi parliament voted to put an end to encroachments against the marshes May 14, many fear the possibility of Iraq’s losing its position on the World Heritage List and being denied the international recognition that would have been of great benefit for the country, especially since previously agreed-upon service and construction programs were not established.

First off, there are concerns about the Water Resources Ministry’s continuing to build settlement islands in the Chibayish marshes, south of Dhi Qar, which UNESCO considers to be a clear violation of the conditions the marshes need to meet in order to stay on the World Heritage List.

In this context, Ajial al-Musawi, the chairman of the Committee on Tourism and Antiquities in Dhi Qar’s provincial council, told Al-Monitor over the phone that UNESCO’s objection is to the nature of the mechanisms used in building these islands in the marshes since they pose a direct threat to biodiversity in the area.

Musawi said, “The government’s reluctance to implement the programs it promised worries us, and we fear the marshes would lose the chance to join the World Heritage List for good, especially since a UNESCO delegation is scheduled to visit us in the coming months.”

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iraq’s Mythical Marshes, New UNESCO Site, See Increase In Tourism

Over the past few months, the legendary marshes of Hawizeh have come alive again – and this time, with the sound of tourist chitchat.

The marshes, in southern Iraq near the Iranian border, are part of a network of waterways that were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site last year. They have long been famous for their natural diversity and because thousands of migratory birds stop here.

Recently, after the area became protected in the middle of 2016, there has been an increase in the numbers of tourists coming to check the marshes out for themselves. Most of the tourists are Iraqis but there are also expats and the occasional foreigner in the boats touring the wetlands – although usually nothing is announced until after the visit is concluded, for security reasons.

For Emma Nicholson, director of AMAR, one of the UK’s longest-standing charities in the country, whose organization actually launched with an appeal for marsh locals fleeing persecution by then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, it had been 25 years since she had visited the area.

“I see that nothing has really changed,” Nicholson said. “With the exception of some boats that are breaking into the marshes’ long silence. And here we are today, as if it was years ago.”

“The first thing I do when I visit the marshes is to eat the bread the locals make there and eat the fish they catch,” another tourist, Iraqi man, Nasrat Kamel, said. The 70-year-old had once lived in Maysan and worked there in the local police. “The marshes are still extremely beautiful.”

The only problem, another visitor points out, is that the area is undeveloped for tourism. So there are no good roads, hotels or restaurants. She says she would return if this changed. Additionally the security was something of an issue, the woman added.

By Adnan Abu Zeed for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Can Iraq reach dam agreement with Turkey to protect marshes?

Severe drought is affecting agricultural lands across Iraq because of the low levels of river water. Iraqi officials have raised the alarm on the negative impact of the Turkish Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016.

Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Hassan al-Janabi and other politicians have been vocal on this matter. In a Sept. 17 media statement, Janabi said, “Iraq will be teetering on the edge of a disaster when the new dam starts operating. The Iraqi government hopes to reach a satisfactory solution with the Turkish government in this regard.”

Rasul al-Tai, a parliamentarian for the al-Ahrar bloc, requested the government in a media statement Sept. 25 to “exercise the necessary economic leverage on Turkey to stop the dam construction and take the necessary measures to activate water agreements with Turkey.”

Such agreements are of paramount importance given the fact that the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris are controlled by Turkey and Iran.

In the same vein, parliamentarian Aziz al-Ugaili also sounded the alarm on the Ilisu Dam in a media statement Sept. 24. “The Turkish dam will affect the sustainability of the Iraqi marshlands, which were inscribed on the World Heritage list on July 17, 2016,” Ugaili said.

Of note, Turkey has cut off water on more than one occasion in the past, and it caused a major humanitarian crisis every time, prompting dozens of families to flee their residences in the Ramadi area in Anbar province, where the Euphrates River flows.

In further evidence of Ugaili’s statements, Furat al-Tamimi, the head of the parliamentary Water and Agriculture Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Turkey will escalate its systematic water ban into Iraqi territories, which would take a heavy toll on agriculture, following the completion of the dam’s final stages.”

He added, “Iraq has been objecting to the dam project, but to no avail. Upon completion, Iraq will lose about 50% of the Tigris River.”

A senior British politician who has fought for more than two decades to save Iraq’s fabled marshlands today welcomed a United Nations’ decision to make the region a World Heritage Site.

Baroness (Emma) Nicholson of Winterbourne began her campaign after Saddam Hussein ordered his army to attack the marsh people and destroy their habitat by damming and draining it.

Thought by many to be the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden, the marshes were almost completely destroyed by Saddam’s actions.  They have recovered a little since the dictator was deposed, but it will be many years before they could be fully restored.

Baroness Nicholson, whose charity, the AMAR International Charitable Foundation works on medical and educational need in the region, said she was “absolutely ecstatic” about the news from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural organisation.

Saddam Hussein did his damndest to destroy the entire region and all those who lived in it.  He very nearly succeeded and would surely have done so had he not been deposed by allied forces in 2003,” said Baroness Nicholson on Monday.

The Marsh Arabs bravely rose up against the dictator and they paid a dreadful price for that. Many were killed and tens of thousands were driven out of Iraq to become refugees in neighbouring Iran.  It was a Genocide” she explained.

Saddam then issued orders to destroy the Marshes by building dams further up river and drainage canals. In just a few years this beautiful area was in heavy decline.

Baroness Nicholson said she approached UNESCO on several occasions, pleading for their help, but the “political situation wasn’t right” at that time.

The decision to finally award the Marshes World Heritage status is better late than never, but now there is a huge amount of work to do to restore them to their former glory.  Thousands of locals have been forced to move away and find low-paid jobs in other parts of Iraq with their traditional skills as fishermen and farmers now not needed,” continued the Baroness.

This new status must act as a driving force to motivate both the Iraqi Government and other external agencies to breathe new life into the Marshes and help to return them to their magnificent former state. This was a jewel in the world’s environmental crown.”

(Source: AMAR)

By John Lee.

The World Heritage Committee of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has added The Ahwar of Southern Iraq to its World Heritage List.

The Ahwar of Southern Iraq: Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities is made up of seven sites: three archaeological sites and four wetland marsh areas.

The archaeological cities of Uruk and Ur and the Tell Eridu archaeological site form part of the remains of the Sumerian cities and settlements that developed in southern Mesopotamia between the 4th and the 3rd millennium BC in the marshy delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

UNESCO highlighted that the Ahwar of Southern Iraq – also known as the Iraqi Marshlands – are unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment.

More pictures here.

(Source: United Nations News Centre)

Campaign to save Iraq’s historic marshes gathers pace

Iraq’s historic Southern marshes, a spectacularly beautiful haven that brimmed with wildlife, was a jewel in Iraq’s crown. Now it faces permanent extinction, the victim of a man-made campaign to destroy it and the way of life of its indigenous people.

AMAR came into being at the height of Saddam Hussein’s reign to help those men, women and children, fleeing his army’s deadly assaults on the Mesopotamian Marshlands. In fact, our name was an anachronism formed from Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees. 

The region was home to half a million fiercely proud inhabitants.  Now, numbers of Ma’dan (marsh inhabitants) are as low as 20,000. Today, AMAR is backing the ongoing campaign to have the region recognised as a protected UNESCO world heritage site.

The survival of the marshes, and their populations, has been threatened repeatedly over the decades. First, in the 1950s, by the draining of their land for agriculture and oil production. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, by Saddam’s mass eviction of Shia Muslims in the South. And now, by drought and the creation of regional dams in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

By the end of Saddam’s reign the marshes had been drained to 10% of their original size and hundreds of thousands of Shiite Marsh Arabs had been forced to flee religious persecution, many to Iran. Daesh has also contributed to the demise of the marshes by controlling the flow of water behind dams seized in Mosul and Ramadi.

AMAR’s Regional Manager in Iraq, Dr Ali Muthanna, has highlighted the plight of the Marsh Arabs: “the marshes are dying and their populations are suffering. They are in desperate need of support. Whilst the Iraqi government has given up on the marshes, AMAR is working tirelessly to help the Ma’dan”.

Since 1991 AMAR has been helping to rebuild the lives of Iraq’s most vulnerable communities including the Marsh Arabs of the South, offering emergency aid, education and primary medical healthcare.

AMAR’s multiple educational and health initiatives in the South are helping to alleviate the effects of poverty in Iraq’s dispersed Ma’dan communities. Mobile health clinics visit families in hard to reach areas, offering both primary medical care as well as preventative health measures like polio and cholera vaccinations. Educational initiatives offer a combination of schooling for children and vocational skills for adults.

The Marsh Arabs had developed a unique way of living that was closely intertwined with the wetlands and their natural resources. They lived in reed huts and their livelihoods and continued existence were dependent on the marshes. They fished,  bred water buffalo and cultivated crops such as rice, barley and wheat.  Now though, many families have been forced to leave the region to look for work elsewhere.

In the aftermath of Saddam’s reign, AMAR’s Heritage Project worked to rebuild the legacy and identity of Iraq’s Marsh Arab communities. It increased public awareness of the Ma’dan peoples’ unique culture and their ongoing hardships, through the education of thousands of school children and adult learners.

AMAR is helping to challenge the detrimental effects that the collapse of the marshlands has had on the Marsh Arabs, their prosperity and culture,” said Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, Chairman of the AMAR Foundation.

The Marsh Arabs are the forgotten victims of a brutal genocide. In targeting the Ma’dan, Saddam Hussein destroyed the lives of nearly half a million of these lost souls. Even now, their marshes are still vanishing and they face new threats from Daesh’s control over Iraqi dam water. We must protect the marshlands and their peoples. We must not allow either to disappear”.

Please click here to support AMAR’s work in the region.

(Source: AMAR)