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 foot...in 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.
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  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."
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.
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.
LITANI Case ATATURK Case
Books 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). Journals 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). Magazines "Iraq: Down but not out." The Economist 335/7909 (April 8, 1995). NEWSPAPERS Deutsche Press-Agentur (March 8, 1995). OTHER Reuter EC Report (March 20, 1995). U.S. Department of State Dispatch, March, 1995.
November, 1997; January, 2001