The Compass Edge

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  • The marshes of southern Iraq

    Posted by Brian Jones

    16 October 2003 – southernmarshes (60k image)

    Some 10-15 years ago the southern regions of Iraq had abundant marshes stretching out for many thousands of square kilometeres. In about 1993 an executive decision was made to drain the marshes and turn the land into productive arable land. The original planning for the drainage was done by nice British engineers back in the 1930's and 40's and Saddam often pointed to these plans as proof that it was not him who dreamed up the scheme.

    After years of dry aridity, the marshes are finally being reflooded although its not really obvious to what extent this is the result of official intervention and to what extent it's a result of locals opening up flood gates and redirecting drainage canals. The photo shows a vast area of land that has only recently been reflooded and the despite the area flooded the depth of water is only a meter or so. However, it's amazing to see how quickly people are getting out old boats and dusting off their fishing nets and becoming 'marsh arabs' again.

    The reasons for their drainage are complex. After the imposition of sanctions there was certainly a need for greater internal food production in a country that had traditionally imported a great deal of its staple food. However, the marshes had always been seen as an 'opposition' area, fraught with banditry and where people enlisted in the army could flee to and hide from the government. This perception was heightened directly after the first Gulf War when an uprising was started in Souq ash Shyoukh in the governorate of Thi'Qar, and a hearland of the marshes. The uprising, despite promises of international assistance, was left without assistance and was put down in the most brutal manner imaginable by the Baathist regime. Since this time the marshes have been treated with outright hostility culminating in their drainage.

    It's clear that the majority of people in the vicinity do want the marshes reflooded but it's also clear that there are many opposing views, mostly from those who have a distinct vested interest in maintaining the land as agricultural land. Many of the marsh arabs were forced to turn towards farming, to which they feel little or know affinity and profess to have little skill. These farmers were often tricked into taking very large loans which they are unable to pay and the reflooding of the farm land provides a great opportunity for them to default on loan payments :-)

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