Iraq's Marshes Are Drying Up

Jan 23, 2023 By Aaditi P, Writer Intern
Aaditi's picture

Nestled in the arid deserts of Iraq, lies a fertile valley crisscrossed by rivers and home to countless agricultural communities. 

This region of Mesopotamia was once a flourishing oasis of swamps, marshes, and lakes. Unfortunately, the marshes are slowly drying up now due to various ecological and political factors. 

Extensive droughts have triggered some of the worst water shortages in decades. Farmers, fishermen, buffalo herders, and others whose livelihoods depend on these thriving ecosystems have been forced to leave. 

Scientists warn that without immediate action to restore the region’s water, there could be irreversible damage to Mesopotamia’s marshes -- which, in turn, will impact the food supply and the people of Iraq. Let's find out what has led to the current crisis. 

A Brief History

Twelve thousand years ago, the first human settlements began emerging in the fertile Mesopotamian valleys.

Mesopotamia, which means “the land between the rivers” refers to the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. It is considered the “cradle of human civilization” as early humans who were hunter-gatherers until then, began farming and settled down. 

The fertile location combined with the then-humid Middle Eastern climate also helped animals thrive, kickstarting the domestication of livestock - notably goats and cattle. Over time, the ancient cities of Ur, Sumer, and Babylon grew and flourished. 

For thousands of years since, the Mesopotamian valley remained a hub for agriculture, trade, and prospering civilizations. However, in 1979, Iraq fell under the authoritarian rule of a dictator, Saddam Hussein, who waged a decade-long war with Iran. In 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered the deliberate bombing and draining of over 90% of the Mesopotamian marshes to punish the Marsh Arabs who opposed his regime.

After Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, efforts were made by the new government, the Marsh Arabs, and the United Nations to restore the marshes to 58% of their original capacity and rebuild the damaged ecosystem. The area soon began thriving again and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, recent droughts have led to a setback. 

The Second Impact

Since 2019, Iraq has battled severe droughts that scientists say are the impacts of climate change. Additionally, a lack of cooperation between Iraq and Turkey on how to divide the water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has led to a decline in the water flow into the Mesopotamian valley. 

This has affected essential irrigation for farmers and left thousands of livestock and birds without sources of clean drinking water. With thousands of animals dying from malnutrition and diseases, animal herders are forced to relocate and seek new employment opportunities. 

With less freshwater flowing in from the rivers, the marshes are getting more salty and unstable. The Iraqi government is under pressure to invest in water filtration systems and better regulate aquifers that supply groundwater.

The slow desertification of the Mesopotamian basin is unfortunately one of the many examples of how delicate ecosystems are falling victim to climate change. The need to act soon to restore them is increasingly clear. 

Sources: NY Times, VOA News, Yale