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

A mother covers her daughter’s mouth and nose with her headscarf as they rush through the heavy smog that blankets a crowded street. She stops to cough, but then continues to walk while covering her own mouth with her free hand. Maryam and her daughter Mina are not the only ones struggling with the air in this southwestern Iranian city.

For over two months, Ahvaz and its people have been choked by fires engulfing the Hawizeh Marshes that straddle the border with Iraq. Nearly two-thirds of the marshes are located in Iraq, with the rest not far from Ahvaz.

In mid-August, the governor of the town of Hawizeh, west of Ahvaz, said fumes and the smoke from flames originating on the Iraqi side of the marshes have sent over 250 people to the hospital. Things are not looking any better on the Iranian side of the border.

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

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi paid a visit to the Iraqi marshlands in September 2017, photos showed him on a mashoof, the traditional narrow canoe that has been in use in the region for centuries. Yet the boat, a symbol of transportation in this UNESCO-protected area, may well be the part of the region’s heritage on the verge of extinction.

The owner of a mashoof boat, Razaq Jabbar, a traditionally dressed man with a sunburnt, wrinkled face, told the media March 25 that he was proud to take the Iraqi prime minister on his boat. Jabbar is one of the few dozen skilled artisans who continue to build these boats, and he might be the last in his family to continue the trade.

According to the head of the Chibayish Tourism Organization, Raad Habib al-Asadi, there are less than 50 mashoof manufacturers in southern Iraq who continue their craft. They are located mostly in the towns of Basra, Hillah and Kufa, where vast rivers and swamps are found.

“Our organization is observing the disappearance of this traditional industry, as manufacturers abandon it in search of other work,” Asadi told Al-Monitor. “The decrease in manufacturers is in parallel to the decrease in water levels [in the Iraqi marshes] and the drying up of rivers and swamps.”

The Iraqi marshlands were drained in parts from the 1950s onward, to reclaim land for agriculture and oil exploration. In the 1980s and 1990s, President Saddam Hussein drained the area even further. “The campaign sought to wipe out government opponents who were hiding among the marsh reeds and forests, ultimately forcing local people to migrate. The drying of Iraq’s marshes and rivers from low water levels has led to the disappearance of many workshops of this traditional industry,” Asadi said.

By the 1970s, the area of 7,700 square miles had been reduced to 3,500 square miles, and following Saddam’s drainage campaign in the 1990s it stood at 290 square miles.

UNESCO eventually placed the wetlands, thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden, on its heritage list in September 2016, describing it as “one of the world’s largest inland delta systems in an extremely hot and arid environment” and “a refuge of biodiversity in the relict landscape of the Mesopotamian cities.”

The history of the mashoof, one of the main ways of regional transportation, goes back to the Sumerian civilization that flourished in Iraq around 5,000 B.C. Iraq’s inhabitants of the time manufactured mashoofs from tar materials, a tradition that is used until now.

“We have drawn attention through the media of the extinction of this profession, but there is no response from the government to improve the situation [and make this profession attractive to the younger generation],” Asadi noted.

Asadi introduced to Al-Monitor one of the longest-standing families in the trade — the al-Kanbar family, who has been manufacturing mashoofs in the ​​Chibayish region for as long as anyone remembers. One of their sons, Ali al-Kanbar, explained that many different materials can be used to build the narrow boat, such as “mulberry trees, cedar and jasmine trees, as well as the reeds and papyrus growing in the marshes.” These are used to make the skeleton of the mashoof. “Later, industrial fiberglass material was also used to build the structure. It is then lined with cotton to fill the gaps between the arched wooden panels that give the mashoof its streamlined shape. It is then coated with oil and tar to prevent water and moisture leaking into the boat,” he explained.

The mashoof is not the only type of boat that is seen in the marshlands. The long and lean mashoof is used mostly for transporting various goods; the “kaad” is a smaller fishing boat, and the “jalibut” even smaller and narrower that is used for river excursions. A larger boat made with the traditional design — called “basim” — is also used for river tours as it can seat more people. These boats cost between $500 and $1,000 to manufacture and can go as high as $4,000.

“The mashoofs have decreased in number and size,” said Kanbar, explaining that the mashoof is now rarely used for transporting food, agricultural products and animals. “Fuel-driven boats — which can carry larger loads — replaced traditional ones, destroying a manufacturing industry that requires more effort, time, special materials and rare skills.”

In the district of Krit’a on the Hillah River in central Babil governorate, boat craftsman Hussain al-Khafaji told Al-Monitor that there are only four workshops remaining that build boats. “The city used to be teeming with fishing and picnic vessels made in these workshops,” he said.

In the surroundings of the Kufa River, a southern branch of the Euphrates, only four traditional workshops remain. Sheikh Haider al-Kufi, who lives in Kufa, in Najaf province, learned the profession from his ancestors, who have been masters of the trade for some 200 years. He told Al-Monitor that thousands of boats were manufactured in local workshops in the past.

“The times when Kufa’s Corniche Street was home to around 30 mashoof workshops is now a thing of the past. There are now only about 10 manufacturers left. We are making barely four or five boats [per year] because of a lack of demand,” he said.

The head of the Agricultural Committee and member of Babil Council, Suheila Abbas, gave further reasons for the decline of this heritage industry, besides new means of transportation. She told Al-Monitor, “The decline in river levels has led to a reduction in the number of fishermen and a reduced need for the transport of agricultural products.”

Abbas believes that it will not be long before these workshops disappear completely. “An intervention by the relevant heritage manufacturing industries is therefore needed to address the issue, before the mashoof becomes a mere relic in museums,” she said.

Member of parliament Abdul Hadi Mohan al-Saadawi expressed his concerns to Al-Monitor about the disappearance of the mashoof and reports indicating the loss of this symbol of Iraq’s marshes and waterways. “There is a reduction in the need for this type of boat in many rivers. This makes the industry’s workshops — a key facet of our heritage — worthy of support and development by the related committees in the Ministry of Culture,” he said.

He concluded, “The Ministry of Industry must support these skills and craftsmen, encouraging the continued practice and innovation of the trade, because it is a national icon representing some 5,000 years of our history. The mashoof that is used in the marshes today is the very same mashoof used in the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations, in terms of its form and raw materials, as is depicted in historical drawings and artifacts.”

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.”

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)

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

Iraqi marsh residents hold tight to their reed homes

Many houses in the towns and villages in southern Iraq are made of green reeds. The town of Nasiriyah, which is located 350 kilometers (217 miles) southeast of Baghdad, is one of them. The green reeds, found in the marshes of southern Iraq, turn into strong yellow sticks after drying.

Green reeds are environmentally friendly, and Iraqis are proud of their cultural value, as they date back to the days of the Sumerian civilization in Iraq in 4000 B.C., specifically in the southern regions of the country. Houses made of papyrus and palm trunks are also common in the south of the country.

Folklore researcher Khayoun Chaker, who lives in the marsh area in Nasiriyah, told Al-Monitor, “Clay inscriptions and cylindrical seals inscribed with the images of houses similar to these [homes] were found in the historical city of Ur near Nasiriyah. This proves that these houses made of reed are the same as those built by the Sumerians thousands of years ago.”

Journalist and Nasiriyah resident Alaa Kouli told Al-Monitor that people buy these houses, which are common in marsh areas such as al-Jabayesh and Hammar Marshes, because “they are cheap and can be built in a few days. They are simple and well suited to the marshes’ environment that has an agricultural aspect with people living off agriculture, fishing and hunting birds.”

Abu Abbas al-Assadi, a sheikh from the Bani Asad tribe in al-Jabayesh district, lives in a house made of reeds in al-Jabayesh, 70 kilometers from the city center of Nasiriyah. The area accommodates floating villages on the marshes. Assadi told Al-Monitor, “The raw material from which these houses are built are the plants and large papyrus fields that grow in water. Modern construction materials such as cement and bricks are not used here.”

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.

Iraqis are seeking protection from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee for their southern marshes. But the issue is not just environmental; it’s also about international water politics.

When the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets this July in Istanbul, Iraqis are hoping that, at long last, their southern marshes will make it onto the World Heritage List, conferring upon them some important protections. A number of historic sites in Iraq are also up for consideration.

The World Heritage Committee meeting, which occurs annually, involves a meeting of representatives from 21 countries, who discuss finances and procedures as well as potential new world heritage sites and the state of existing ones.

Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has wanted to see the southern marshes on this UNESCO list since 2013 and has been actively lobbying members of the Committee to advance the cause. Last year a delegation came to Iraq to visit the marshes and assess them.

The marshes, estimated to cover around 20,000 square kilometres, incorporate a unique wetlands ecosystem, in the middle of a desert, lying between the southern cities of Basra, Amarah and the Suq Al Shuyoukh district.

ANF- The international coalition of the “Save the Tigris and the Iraqi Marshes Campaign” has released a statement welcoming the achievement accomplished by the national Iraqi team for the nomination of the Iraqi marshes to the World Heritage Committee, according to the 1972 World Heritage Convention. The Iraqi Ministry of Environment confirmed that it had […]

By John Lee.

Iraq sees an average of about two million tourists a year, but a senior adviser to the Iraqi tourism ministry has told AFP that that number could be tripled to six million.

The country hosts millions of Shiite Muslims on pilgrimages to its various holy sites, from Samarra in the north, about 125 kilometres north of Baghdad, to Basra in the south, the country’s second largest city.

But the Telegraph reports that tourists have been deterred from visiting the country following continued violence, including Iraq’s most sustained wave of bloodshed in half a decade this year, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,600 people since the beginning of April.

Yet despite the problems, tour operators like UK-based Hinterland Travel have been arranging trips to Iraq, with prices from around £2,000 for a nine-day tour, not including the cost of flights and visas.

The operator is one of the few that has official approval from the Iraqi government to organise visits to the country, with tour groups being driven around in an unmarked van accompanied by an Iraqi policeman for security purposes.

Earlier this year, Iraqi authorities announced plans to restore the Arch of Ctesiphon (pictured), south of Baghdad, in an attempt to increase the country’s appeal to tourists; it is the world’s largest brick-built arch, and the last structure still standing from the ancient Persian imperial capital of the same name.

Iraq’s southern marshes are also set to become a centre of eco-tourism based around floating hotels and guided wildlife tours, according to the vision of Azzam Alwash, a former occupant of the marshes and trained engineer who won the Goldman Prize earlier this year, an award widely regarded as the environmental equivalent of the Oscars.

(Source: The Telegraph)

(Picture: UNESCO)