A few weeks ago I was at the Arundel Wetland Centre, down near the South Coast. The site has a series of reedbeds and wetland habitats, and one in particular caught my attention. It was a re-creation of the marshlands of Eastern Iraq, with information panels and photos of the unique civilization that once thrived there. I’d heard the story before, but to see this little patch of marsh with its replica reed houses, canoes and Mesopotamian ducks brought it home in a new way.
When imagining the landscape of Iraq, the prevailing images that come to mind are of desert, but in the South-East corner of Iraq is a unusual ecosystem between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. For 5,000 years the Madan people lived here, creating a distinctive culture and way of life around the 20,000 square kilometers of marshes – an area the size of Wales. Isolated from the rest of the world, communities lived in floating villages and cultivated rice and fish. They developed a striking natural building technique and built surprisingly large houses and halls out of nothing but reeds.
The eroding of this landscape began in the 1950s, under the guidance of British engineers. Large sections of the marshes were drained and turned into irrigated farmland, and other parts were drained for oil drilling. The Madan, or Marsh Arabs, were considered inferior and were systematically displaced.
The crunch came in 1991. After the first Gulf War, there were a series of uprisings by Shia Muslims against Saddam Hussein and his Sunni regime. They were brutally quashed, and many Shia fled south towards Iran. Saddam suspected that the Madan were sheltering rebels, and he stepped up his campaign against them. Villages were burned or bombed, and tens of thousands of people driven from their lands. Key rivers were dammed, and canals dug to divert water away from the marshes. The names of the canals make the point clear: the Mother of Battles canal, Glory River, and the Loyalty to the Leader canal.
By the second Gulf War in 2003, 90% of the marshes had been drained, reduced to dry cracked earth. From an original half a million people in the 1950s, the Madan had dwindled to just 20,000. It is perhaps the starkest example of true ecocide – the deliberate destruction of an ecosystem in order to destroy a way of life.
After Saddam, there has been a concerted effort to restore the wetlands. The embankments have been torn down to allow the ground to flood again. Remarkably, seeds that had been in the dust for a decade burst back into life, and the reedbeds have begun to re-establish themselves. It will take a long time for the wildlife to return, though the endangered Marbled Teal is back in numbers. It will take even longer for the people to resettle. The Madan way of life may never be recreated the way it was, but the UN, the Iraqi government and other agencies have been coordinating to bring some strategy, and the recovery is underway. And it makes the Iraqi wetlands project the biggest habitat restoration effort in the world.
The story is told rather well in the BBC documentary Miracle in the Marshes: