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Case Number 60

Case Identifier: MARSH

Case Name

Marsh Arabs, Water Diversion, and Cultural Survival


1. Abstract

Since the Gulf War, various news reports, essays, and critiques have been published concerning the physical devastation brought about by coalition force bombing attacks. No doubt, the ruinous aftermath remains a very important environmental, economic, and cultural concern. One of the more important internal problems, however, has been quietly unfolding over the past four years. It involves an attempt, by the Iraqi Government, to force the Ma'dan people (roughly 500,000 of them), the so-called 'Marsh Arabs,' out of their southern wetland settlements by literally "draining life from Iraq's marshes." Reaching beyond the social and political ramifications, the permanent environmental and economic damage caused by this policy may be irreversible. By diverting the water flow of one of the most famous and important river systems in the world (the Tigris/Euphrates), the Iraqi leaders appear to be tampering with not only their environment but with their historical legacy, as well.

2. Description

The idea of draining the marshlands of southern Iraq is not a new concept, and certainly not the first time the Tigris-Euphrates river system has been harnessed for man's use. The delta/marsh area "was probably the first region of the world where humans gained mastery over major rivers. Irrigation and flood protection were vital to the farmers who fed the inhabitants of the world's first known cities, built in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago." The marshlands region was part of this development.

Dams were built to harness water and energy for irrigation and electricity. Within Iraq, there are at least four dams on the Euphrates and three major dams on the Tigris, which are contributing heavily to a water shortage in the area.

The first major marsh-draining scheme was proposed in the 1951 Haigh Report, "Control of the Rivers of Iraq," drafted by British engineers working for the Iraqi government. "The report describes an array of sluices, embankments and canals on the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates that would be needed to 'reclaim' the marshes." The study's senior engineer, Frank Haigh, felt that the standing marsh water was being wasted, so he "proposed concentrating the flow of the Tigris [River] into a few embanked channels that would not overflow into the marshes. He proposed one large canal through the main `Amara marsh." In this way, Iraq would be able to "capture the marsh water for irrigation" purposes to aid in feeding the newly created State of Iraq.

Construction of the large canal, called the Third River, began in 1953. Further construction took place in the 1960's. It was not until the 1980's, however, during the Iran-Iraq War, that major work was resumed. Today, many of the water projects in the marsh area bear a striking resemblance to the Haigh Plan -- the only problem is that the projects are not being used for agricultural improvement!

Various international organizations such as the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the International Wildfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau, and Middle East Watch have been monitoring the Iraqi situation. All have found evidence to indicate that the Iraqi Government has been attempting to force the Ma'dan people from their homes through water diversion tactics copied from the Haigh Report. Iraq's majority Sunni government is attempting to weaken the Ma'dan because they are Shiite Muslims, maintaining religious links with Iran's Shiite leadership. They have also been accused by the government of harboring refugees from oppression in Baghdad.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the above-mentioned organizations have uncovered the following intelligence: 1) By 1993, the Iraqi Government was able to prevent water from reaching two-thirds of the marshlands. 2) The flow of the Euphrates River has almost been entirely diverted to the Third River Canal, bypassing most of the marshes. 3) The flow of the Tigris River has been channeled into tributary rivers (with artificially high banks), prohibiting the tributary water from seeping into the marshlands.

As a result, the environmental effects are thought to be "irreversible with disastrous ecological, social and human consequences for the region." The sparse water remaining has contributed to the salinization of the land. "Over-irrigation and poor drainage compound the problem: as the stagnant water evaporates, it leaves behind a crust of salt." The future for wildlife in the region looks bleak, as well. The marshes are home to fish and migratory birds from western Eurasia such as pelicans, herons and flamingos. Without fresh water, the ecosystem will easily become damaged.

In economic terms, the effects are just as severe. The marshlands region, is home to various crops, trees and livestock. The staple crops of the region are rice and millet. Date palms from the area have played an important part in Iraqi exports as well as the weaved reed mats and harvested cereals from the Ma'dan people. The marshes are also home to cows, oxen, and water buffalo. The recent scarcity of water in the marshlands has contributed to transport problems, which has all but put a stop to economic movement in the region. "Instead of moving...goods by boat the Ma'dan are often having to struggle through hip-deep mud on addition, hundreds of thousands of inhabitants have fled their areas. If this process continues, Saddam Hussein will become responsible for destroying not only the environment and culture, but one of the oldest and most important links with Iraq's past -- the people of the marshlands.

3. Duration: 1993 to now, In Progress

The U.N. has been attempting to monitor the situation in the southern marshes of Iraq. The one piece of legislation applying to the marshlands situation is U.N. Resolution 688, passed April 6, 1991. "This resolution calls on the Iraqi government to provide free access to United Nations and non-governmental humanitarian agencies to all parts of the marshes so that essential humanitarian assistance can be provided." In January 1995, the European Parliament (EP) also passed a resolution "characterizing the [M]arsh Arabs as a persecuted minority 'whose very survival is threatened by the Iraqi Government.' The EP resolution described the Government's treatment of the marsh inhabitants as 'genocide'." In March 1995, the European Parliament adopted another resolution deploring the continuing attacks on Marsh Arabs. Furthermore, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, in March 1995, passed a resolution calling for an end to military operations and efforts to drain the swamplands.

4. Location

Conteintent:Mideast Region:Asiamid Country:Iraq The worst destruction is located in the southeast sector of Iraq, between the cities of Amara, Nassiriyah, and Basra (in the land of ancient Mesopotamia). The `Amara Marsh, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is home to the Ma'dan people. The `Amara Marsh has been most affected by the drainage scheme.

Another geographical concern involves water shortage. The Middle East continually suffers from drought and water amounts are always near critical levels. "The region's accelerating population, expanding agriculture, industrialization, and higher living standards demand more fresh water." Dam-building is adding to the problem. For example, Turkey just recently completed building the Ataturk Dam [1993] on the Euphrates River. This dam is now capable of harnessing river water for irrigation and power purposes. Since 90 percent of the water for the Euphrates originates in Turkey, any amount kept by Turkey will decrease waterflows to other nations downstream (i.e., Syria and Iraq). This is another reason why the Iraqi marshlands have been drying-up.

There is no "legally binding obligation" to prohibit Turkey from taking the river water. Neighboring countries suffering shortages can press for fair treatment by claiming "historical rights of use", but this usually comes to no avail. In the area, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have set up a "technical committee" to share hydrological information, but it has made "no real headway."

5. Actors: Iraq and Marsh Arabs

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Water

The Iraqi government has not declared the lands as part of the RAMSAR CONVENTION, "the international treaty that protects wetlands."

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

8. Act and Harm Sites: Iraq and Marsh

People have been living in the area of the southern marshes for thousands of years. The ancestors of the Ma'dan (currently the largest group of marsh dwellers, numbering around 500,000) were "partly descendants of the Sumerians and Babylonians, although their numbers have been augmented by immigrations and intermarriages with the Persians on the east and the bedouins on the west." Before the marsh drainage, the lifestyle of the Ma'dan centered around agriculture, particularly cultivating rice and dates, weaving reed mats, raising water buffalo, and fishing. A form of local commerce had developed involving mostly local trade, supported by the use of small boats for transportation.

Since the Ma'dan are Shiite Muslims (sympathizing with the majority leadership in neighboring Iran), and the Iraqi Government is made up of Sunni Muslims, tensions have been steadily on the rise. After the Gulf War ended in 1991, the southern Shiites, at the urging of the coalition forces, started an uprising against Saddam Hussein's government. The uprising was immediately crushed by Iraqi forces and the systematic drying of the land began due to the fact that many Shiites who took part in the uprising fled to hide in the marshlands! Hence, the Ma'dan have been "flushed-out" along with the rebels, "mercilessly", as part of the government's revenge scheme.

For hundreds of years, the Ma'dan have cut river reeds and used them to produce mats, fences, and homes. Reed has also been used to make beds, cots, baskets and canoe poles. Crafting reed products has helped sustain the Ma'dan and has given them the opportunity to barter with people from the surrounding countryside. As the marshes are drained, and the Ma'dan are forced to flee their homeland, this important part of their culture will disappear.

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Civil

Crops involved are: paddy rice and great millet. Other Products/items from the marsh area used in trade are: grain cereals, dates, fish and woven reed mats form the Ma'dan people. Most of the trade has been internal (within Iraq), supporting the Ma'dan people. With the loss of valuable water, however, this way of life is quickly coming to an end. The water-based rural economy of the Marsh Arabs is being exterminated.

Most of the damage is environmental in nature. Water, nevertheless, is becoming a highly valued commodity and its unbridled drainage will certainly cause future problems. Trade sanctions (on oil) imposed by the United States, under UN auspices, have hurt Iraq ever since the Kuwait invasion. The Iraqi Government's continuing drainage scheme will only serve to prolong the sanctions' enforcement.

10. Level of Conflict: Low

The impact of U.N. sanctions has already reduced Iraq's trade competitiveness considerably. For example, "before the imposition of the oil embargo in August 1990, Iraq imported food and medical products worth $3-4 billion a year. The revenue available today for those types of imports, including those arriving as contraband from Jordan, Turkey, and Iran, does not exceed a billion dollars." More sanctions or legal actions could cripple Iraq even further.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 100

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Causal Diagram

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Region

14. Outcome of Dispute: Victory

Iraq has been accused of following through with its marsh-draining project for military and political purposes -- not for agricultural purposes, as the official line insists. An official Iraqi document in the possession of an Iraqi engineer who was captured by resistance forces in the area, provides details about what is transpiring in the marsh area: "It contained instructions to 'withdraw all foodstuffs, ban the sale of fish and prohibit transport to and from the areas.' Mass arrests, assassinations, poisoning the water and burning villages were also ordered by the Iraqi regime." Agriculture has nothing to do with what is actually transpiring.

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases






16. Relevant Websites and Literature


Hazelton, Fran, ed. Iraq Since the Gulf War:  Prospects for 

     Democracy (London: Zed Books, Ltd., 1994).

Salim, S. M. Marsh Dwellers of the Euphrates Delta (London:  The 

     Athlone Press, 1962).


Gleick, Peter H., Haleh Hatami, Peter Yolles.  "Water, War, and 

     Peace in the Middle East:  Conflict Over Water Rights."  

     Environment 36/3 (April, 1994).

Pearce, Fred.  "Draining Life From Iraq's Marshes."  New    

Scientist 138/1869 (April 17, 1993).

Rouleau, Eric.  "America's Unyielding Policy Toward Iraq."  

     Foreign Affairs 74/1 (January/February 1995).

Vesilind, Priit J.  "The Middle East's Water:  Critical     

Resource."  National Geographic 183/5 (May, 1993).


"Iraq:  Down but not out."  The Economist 335/7909 (April 8, 1995).


Deutsche Press-Agentur (March 8, 1995).


Reuter EC Report (March 20, 1995).

U.S. Department of State Dispatch, March, 1995.

November, 1997; January, 2001