Donald Trump has nothing on Saddam Hussein. He talks about “draining the swamp.” (*Now I wonder and worry even more about the origin of Trump’s choice of phrase). Hussein did the exact same thing a few decades back, only in a much more literal sense. Of all the atrocities this horrible dictator committed against his own people, including the mass genocide of Iraqi Kurds and Shia, we can include one that is less well known, astounding in quite unexpected ways. It fits in nicely with this blog, too, since a key component of its success revolved around the systematic and willful destruction of what some experts have called one of the most important wetlands the world has ever known: the Mesopotamian Marshes.
But we must start at the beginning to tell the story properly. We must first introduce the peoples who inhabited the area, those known as the Marsh Arabs. Although there is some question as to who they are or where they came from, scientific studies suggest strong cultural and genetic ties to the ancient Sumerians, and possibly to Bedouin ethnicities, as well. The Marsh Arab people (the Madan, or plain dwellers) had adopted a lifestyle uniquely suited to the wetlands, intricately woven and beautifully tied to the ebb and flow of the marsh waters, themselves, centered around the abundant and versatile qasab reeds that grew there.
They lived humbly as farmers, growing rice and other suitable grain crops in small cleared plots within the marsh regions. They herded water buffalo, and other farm animals. There were also boat builders and fishermen among their numbers, and weavers who made good livings by crafting mats out of the plentiful reeds, growing in every direction, and used for every purpose. Houses were simple, too, also manufactured from the reeds that were as vital to the landscape as the social alliances forged between the tribal villages that crisscrossed these flooded plains.
In 1991, there was an uprising in Iraq, instigated by the Shia during Hussein’s diabolical reign, and also involving Kurdish nationalists and others. The uprising was not tolerated well or long. Hussein, no stranger to brutality, hit back hard, inflicting punishment to whatever degree necessary in order to maintain his grip on Baghdad. Tens of thousands of deaths resulted in a very short time. Many others, fearing reprisals, fled the country en masse.
In the end, Hussein held on to power, and was now primed for vengeance. The marshes had long served as a place of refuge for anti-government insurgents and sympathizers, and many were known to have retreated there after the failed uprisings. Hussein was intent on weeding them out, depriving them of a base camp, no matter what the cost.
There are many ways to smoke out one’s enemy, including those that divest the opponent of his sources for food, and his means for survival. In the case of the Marsh Arabs, all that was needed was the methodical drainage of the marsh waters, and Hussein’s enemies, considered by him as nothing more than unwelcome squatters and agitators, would flee away with nothing.
Before the uprisings, however, the effort to forcefully relocate the wetland dwellers had already been well underway. Now the government redoubled its efforts. Under the guise and propaganda of agricultural improvements (and let’s not forget oil exploration interests as part of the driving force), Iraqi engineers erected dams, dikes, and barriers, and even built completely new canals (with names like “Glory,” “Prosperity,” and “Loyalty to Leader”), all with the rerouting of the flow fully in mind, depriving the marshes and freshwater lakes of their Tigris and Euphrates tributaries. The reeds were burned, and the people were rooted out. It was an ecological and humanitarian disaster.
The massive engineering feat, watched by the whole world, only showed the lengths to which this abomination of a man would go to in order to stay in power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The destruction reeked on a once beautiful sanctuary, and the annihilation of a way of life that was many hundreds of years old, was despicable in every sense of the word. The inhabitants, both human and animal alike, were slowly starved out, the water poisoned, and vital food sources all but gone. Hussein’s war of attrition had worked.
Many dozens of Marsh Arab villages were destroyed by fire, with those who lived there either killed outright as a result of the steady military bombardment, or marched out under duress by the thousands, with most of the women and children now without their husbands and fathers. When it was all finished over the course of several years, the results were devastating. By 2003, the landscape was 90% collapsed. Where a thriving eco-system had once existed—a place where fish and fowl could flourish, where water buffalo could roam, and other wildlife, along with forests of reeds and water plants coexisting in unison—barren desert plain now replaced it. The soil was saline, dry and cracked. To bring the marshes back was considered by many simply impossible.
The lifestyle of the Marsh Arabs was over, too. Dwindling from numbers with estimates in the half million, only a handful would ultimately still practice the traditional reed-based farming lifestyle.
Little did Hussein know that in just a short while thereafter, his reign and his life would be over, as well.
But the story doesn’t end there. Efforts to restore the marshes to their previous glory are ongoing and proving successful, if not in whole, at least in large part. Some water has returned, and the reeds are attempting a comeback. Along with water buffalo, water fowl, and the water people—the Madan.
To learn more about the remarkable labors involved, and one of the amazing personalities behind it all, consider Dr. Azzam Alwash as the biography to read. Having left a successful engineering career in California in 2003 to jumpstart the restoration efforts in his native Iraq, Alwash has demonstrated what resilience and resolve can accomplish. His non-profit organization Nature Iraq continues to focus on the restoration and preservation of Iraq’s natural and cultural heritages.
Sincere thanks for stopping by!