Marshlands in southern Iraq recovering

U.N. touts efforts after Saddam ordered wetlands drained

Just out of the blue marshlands are reappearing:

New satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover in just the past three years, with the marshes rebounding to about 37 percent of the area they covered in 1970, up from about 10 percent in 2002, the United Nations Environment Program said in a report describing a multimillion dollar restoration project funded by Japan.

Well done, United Nations.

Saddam drained much of the Mesopotamian waters between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by building dams, dikes and canals to punish the Marsh Arab inhabitants for supporting a Shiite Muslim rebellion following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He also ordered thousands killed.

All but 40,000 of the 450,000 locals fled or were killed.

That seems patently unfriendly, but then I’m not a patent lawyer.

Of almost 3,600 square miles of marshes in 1970, the area shrank by 90 percent to 304 square miles by 2002. As recently as 2001, some experts forecast the marshlands would disappear by 2008.

But restoration efforts since the fall of Saddam reversed much of the damage, bringing the current area to 1,400 square miles.

The experts forecasting the disappearance of the marshes by 2008 shouldn’t feel too bad. Very few forecast the disappearance of Saddam by that time.

I also like how it’s the “fall of Saddam”. It’s like he slipped or something.

I came across a great article on the efforts to restore the marshes a couple of months ago in, I think, Discover Magazine. It wasn’t available online, and I couldn’t find it anywhere else. At the time, experts weren’t nearly as optimistic about the efforts as this article makes it seem. Hopefully things are just plain going better than thought at first.

Also, I noted Saddam’s drainage of the marshes when excerpting Steven Vincent’s “In The Red Zone” a couple of months ago:

Mohammad was a staunch supporter of America and the liberation of Iraq. Those peace activists who took to the streets were fools,” he remarked, referring to the world-wide protests that took place before the invasion. If they saw for five minutes what went on this country under Saddam, they would not have tried to stop the war?

As if to prove his point, he leaned forward from the back seat and pointed out my window. “We’re on the outskirts of Fallujah,” he noted. “See the greenery around us?” It was true: although I hadn’t noticed before, I now saw on both sides of the highway bluish-green palm groves, hedges, shrubs and dark green grasslands. “This area should be desert, like everything else we’ve seen. But Saddam diverted irrigation waters from the Euphrates River in order to turn it into a new Garden of Eden for his supporters. But at the same time, he turned thousands of acres of fertile marshlands in southern Iraq into desert in order to punish the rebellious Shia. In this way” Mohammad concluded, settling back into his seat, “Saddam turned a wasteland into a paradise–and a paradise into a wasteland. He corrupted even the geography of Iraq.”

Well, thank goodness that the United Nations is finally straightening things out.


  1. the problem with the marshlands, or read that as the reclamation of the marshlands, is how quickly they form. as they were made and maintained by mother nature and destroyed by man, they must be restored by nature. read that as if they return too quickly the water will contaminate and poison the soil. the key is allowing the water to return and establish the salinity that mother nature intended. not allowing the water to return quickly enough will prove just as deadly to the land. this is a delicate balance. global warming?? never heard of it.

  2. Louis, you’re saying that humans letting the waters back in will make things WORSE than they are NOW? From eveything I’ve read, the locals are very much in support of this project that the U.N. (and the U.N. alone) made possible (thank God for the U.N.!!!), so one of two things is true: 1. The local citizens and Iraqi scientists don’t understand what water will do to their (until now) completely dead land. 2. You don’t understand what water will do to the until recently completely dead land. Now, I’m not saying I know the answers, but the evidence based on what I’ve read says a LOT more people think it’s a GOOD idea to have a man-made intervention and let the water flow back in. This includes many interviews with locals and (a couple) Iraqi environmental scientists. I think you’re the first I’ve heard that said we shouldn’t let the water back in.

  3. For what it’s worth, a great deal of the Discover magazine article I read earlier in the year was about the very points that Louielouie brought up. I recall that oil pollution from well fires and the sudden ‘re-marshing’ of long-dried soil when dikes were immediately broken after Saddam slipped and fell were making things a bit of an ecological mess. I guess there’s a middle ground in there somewhere where a bit of effort to rebuild the marshland as it originally was is worth the time and the short-term inconvenience. But people are moving back to the region and they need water and marshes, even if they aren’t exactly as they were in the good old days. Also, I guess some people had converted to farming the dried land and are now opposed to resubmerging it. So there’s a lot of differing opinion about exactly what the best route is and how quickly to go about it. But, by and large, I do think this is a GREAT thing and my hat’s off to Japan for providing most of the financial support.

  4. I have subscribed to Discover for at least 7 years now (my favorite magazine!), and I believe I read the same article. (Though it could be a different one…) The conclusion I left with was that there were issues that needed to be worked out to BEST ‘reclaim’ the marshlands, but I was NOT left with the conclusion that only ‘mother nature’ should intervene. However, on re-reading Louis’ post, I fear I responded too quickly, and I *APOLOGIZE*. He was not saying what I thought he was, in my scrolling through the comment, I mixed a couple of sentences together to lead me to believe he stated that interfering would be ‘as deadly’ as the previous interference of drying it out. Again, humblest apologies.

  5. >>The conclusion I left with was that there were issues that needed to be worked out to BEST ‘reclaim’ the marshlands, but I was NOT left with the conclusion that only ‘mother nature’ should intervene.<< That is exactly the conclusion I had, as well. You stated it far better than I did.