Climate change, dams, and warfare have pushed Iraq’s legendary southern marshes to the edge. Rains revived them after they nearly dried up last year, but the wetlands’ uncertain survival depends on international cooperation.

Dense stands of tall green reeds wave in the marshes of southeastern Iraq. Under a blazing sun, little birds flit through the grasses and buffalo wade through the waters, as their caretakers float beside them in long, thin boats. Some scholars believe these wetlands are the biblical Garden of Eden. 

By this time last year, however, the wetlands had turned into cracked, dry earth, crisscrossed only by muddy creeks. Prolonged drought and damming upstream had all but desiccated the wetlands; some areas lost 50 percent of their water in just three months. One buffalo herder told Reuters that he was forced to sell most of his herd—another drought would have “been the end.”

Then the rains came.

Torrential rain fell in late 2018, causing deadly flash floods that displaced thousands in northern and central Iraq. But in the south, they brought life. Reservoirs brimmed over, sending water rushing down rivers into the thirsty marshes. Revived, they are now flush with their highest water levels in decades, but climate change and political discord make their future uncertain. 

Eden’s Marshes 

Two rivers, the mighty Tigris and Euphrates, are Iraq’s lifeblood, nourishing its farmland since farming began there some 8,000 years ago. But they are shriveling up—one study predicted that they would no longer reach the sea by 2040. 

Map of southern Iraq showing the former extent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands

Near-mythic marshes span the region where these rivers converge, shortly before spilling into the Arabian Gulf. Reliant on river water, the wetlands consist of three main bodies—the Central, Hammar, and Hawizeh marshes—the last of which is partly in Iran.     

Once the largest wetlands in the Middle East, they used to cover an area about as large as New Jersey, and larger than the entire country of Kuwait. Azzam Alwash, a renowned environmentalist who founded Nature Iraq, remembers the marshland of his youth as “a piece of heaven, full of fish and birds, water buffalo grazing on land amongst the reeds.” 

Life in the marshes, though ancient, is not all Edenic. Their residents, known as Marsh Arabs, have relied on drought-vulnerable fish, rice, and water buffalo for 5,000 years. Government services are often far from their reed-built houses, or “mudhif.” None have electricity, and there are few schools. 

Decline and Collapse

The marshes began to decline in the 1970s, when Iraq, Turkey, and Syria started building massive dams on the Tigris and Euphrates to quench the thirst of their growing cities. Dams diverted mountain meltwater from continuing downstream, spurring ongoing conflict over how to share the life-giving resource. Turkey has the upper hand, being the source of both rivers, and its water consumption has contributed to the drying of the marshes. 

But the ecosystem truly collapsed in the ’90s, at the hands of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Viewed from above, a harsh geometry of channels, dykes, and oilfields clashes with the natural wildness of the wetlands, recalling the violent history.

Marshes of southern Iraq

Accusing the Marsh Arabs of instigating a 1991 uprising and harboring Shi’ite rebels in the reeds, Hussein drained the marshes. Claiming to be creating farmland, his government diverted the Tigris and choked off the water that fed the wetlands. The centerpiece construction was a mile-wide channel callously named the Glory Canal. 

As the marshes decayed, Hussein’s army poisoned their waters and gunned down their residents with helicopters. All this culminated in a humanitarian disaster and one of the 20th century’s worst environmental catastrophes. Nearly 500,000 Marsh Arabs dwindled to less than 20,000. Most resettled on farms or in cities, or fled abroad, many to Iran. In exile, their unique, long-held traditions, livelihoods, communities, and even religion faded. 

Their wetland home turned into desert, freshwater and farmland became salty and unusable, species disappeared, and global bird migrations were disrupted. 

Bouncing Back

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Hussein, locals broke down the dictator’s dykes, letting the water back into the marshes. But change came slowly. It took years for life—birds, fish, plants, and people—to return, and some never did. Upwards of 250,000 Marsh Arabs came back, but the damage had already been done. 

“The marshes have not been restored,” Alwash said, simply reflooded. He returned in 2003 to help revive the marshes, after decades of living in California.

Their freshwater became too salty to drink (potable water must now be bought daily) and unlivable for most fish. The remaining fish, like the underfed buffalo, are smaller and fetch lower prices. The marshes are no longer fully functioning ecosystems, but close approximations of them. This year, they are the most alive they have been since they were drained.

A Severe Prognosis

Water may shimmer among the reeds again, but last year’s rains do not promise a wetter future. Due to climate change, Iraq is getting hotter and drier, and rain is falling more unevenly across the country. Some rivers have already lost up to 40 percent of their water in recent decades. The summer of 2018, one of the hottest and driest on record, brought Iraq its worst water shortage in 80 years, leading the government to impose severe limits on growing rice and other crops, stirring nationwide protests. 

The negative effects of climate change in Iraq show little sign of slowing. Average rainfall will likely decrease by nine percent by 2050, and average summer temperature will likely shoot up to 108o Fahrenheit. 

But a warmer atmosphere retains more moisture, leading to stronger rainfall. Anthropogenic climate change is bringing extreme weather worldwide—too little water, but also too much. When storms do come to Iraq, like last year’s deluge they will be more intense. Fierce, fast rains bring floods that quickly wash water into the ocean, keeping it from being stored on land.  

Hotter weather also means drier soil: more water will evaporate, and plants will suck up more groundwater. When rain falls, the thirsty earth will sponge it up, leaving less water to flow through rivers or pool in lakes, reservoirs, and marshes. Rain will recharge the landscape (temporarily), but less freshwater will be available for humans to drink, bathe, or use for irrigation and watering livestock.

Marshes are more resilient than farmland: rice cannot grow in brackish water, but reeds can. Alwash predicts that last years’ rainfall will bring Iraq’s marshes a gentler few years, and a welcome relief. But they also rely on regular springtime meltwater floods to replenish their nutrients and flush out the salt. Less rainfall upstream makes the marshes less hospitable. 

Finding Solutions

Nestled up against the marshes are Iraq’s richest oil fields, the source of much of its wealth. But that oil, burned in vehicles and factories worldwide, has contributed to the weather extremes that threaten the country’s water supply. Alwash dreams of weaning Iraq from fossil fuels by converting its ample sun and desert into solar energy, but doing so will be difficult

Besides the mitigation of climate change, the lives of the marshes depend on political will. After years of crippling conflict with ISIS, government corruption, ineptitude, and misplaced priorities jeopardize Iraq’s water future. Though Baghdad doubled the water ministry budget this year, it is still one of its least funded ministries.

Iraq’s booming population, expected to double to 80 million by 2050, threatens to further bankrupt its freshwater supply. Keeping status quo water management strategies would mean the “death of irrigated agriculture in the land where it was born,” Alwash told Inside Arabia. 

Water’s Political Barriers

Alwash, always hopeful, sees scarcity as a potential catalyst for unlikely, but essential, cooperation between neighbors. He is lobbying Iraq and its neighbors to put aside politics and realize their common, coming enemy: water shortage

Conflict over water will likely define the future of the Middle East. Alwash and his colleagues have proposed a “Fertile Crescent Economic Cooperation Region,” hoping that the prospect of economic gain will unify otherwise uninterested states around water management. Past conflict does not preclude future cooperation, they argue—the European Union emerged from the ashes of two devastating wars. 

Iraq, 70 percent of whose water originates from outside its borders, must negotiate with Turkey in particular, whose dams control river flow. Baghdad has little leverage, but Alwash suggests that it could trade its oil for water, which is better stored in Turkey’s high mountain reservoirs. Without an agreement, Turkey’s controversial new Ilisu dam could cut down the flow of the Tigris River into Iraq by 56 percent. 

Alwash gives Iraq two more seasons to work out proper water management before crisis hits again. 

A Political Ecosystem

Scarcity is making clear that nations cannot live in isolation. The Middle East should be borderless when it comes to water, Alwash proposes. Nations, like the strict lines of drainage channels, are unnatural impositions onto the boundless contours of ecosystems. Water rejects straight lines and is indifferent to human politics. 

To keep Iraq’s ancient marshes and vital farmland from disappearing entirely or becoming uninhabitable, Iraq and its neighbors must learn to work with their water, and with each other.