The weaponisation of water and Iraq's climate catastrophe

Mesopotamian Marshes
12 January, 2023
Without the Tigris and Euphrates, civilisation as we know it would not have existed. Such is the significance of these rivers to Iraq that, as drought conditions worsen, the fate of the Mesopotamian Marshes may yet affect the fate of the nation.

Do you know about the Mesopotamian Marshes in the south of Iraq?

A beautiful landscape, amassing tens of thousands of square miles, where the primary terrain is water. Here, where you’ll find people living in reed villages along the river bank, the main form of transportation is long and narrow canoes known as mashoof.

Men and women alike are fishing, while downstream children are submerging themselves to cool off from the scorching temperatures. As far as the eye can see, one's vision is spoiled for choice with a beautiful palette of colours from cerulean to cyan and teal to turquoise.

"As the marshes dry up in front of our eyes, it has become apparent that water, Iraq’s most essential and coveted resource, is under severe threat"

Community gatherings are held within man-made buildings known as mudhifs.

These traditional houses are made of reeds and qasab (a special type of grass) interwoven into thick columns and arches.

Mudhifs have been constructed by residents of the marshes for around 5,000 years. Some of the first discoveries were found in the ancient city of Uruk, east of the modern-day city of Samawah during the Sumerian period.

The marshes are thought to be home to over a million birds, and host to the world’s largest flock of Basra Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus griseldis). Both flora and fauna are phenomenal sights to see at this UNESCO world heritage site.

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The marshes hold a special place in my heart, as my roots lie upon the riverbanks of Amarah, a city in southeast Iraq which sits on the Tigris river, south of Baghdad and only 50km from the Iranian border.

It was Amarah where my grandparents were born and raised, before moving upstream to the metropole and capital city. As well as being a source of pride, the marshes are a cornerstone of history and culture for many Iraqis.

An Iraqi man is seen at the Mesopotamian Marshes in Zikar, Iraq. Livestock, which is the only source of income for the people of the region, has been affected by adverse conditions, as the large marshy areas fed by the Euphrates River are experiencing drought due to decreasing precipitation and increasing temperatures [Getty Images]
An Iraqi man is seen at the Mesopotamian Marshes in Zikar, Iraq. Livestock, which is the only source of income for the people of the region has been affected by adverse conditions, as the large marshy areas fed by the Euphrates River are experiencing drought due to decreasing precipitation and increasing temperatures [Getty Images]

Attributed to the title “The Cradle of Civilization”, the ancient region of Mesopotamia has seen a myriad of empires rise and fall throughout history, such as the Sumerians, the Akkadians and the Babylonians.

The word “Mesopotamia” is formed from the ancient Greek words “meso,” which means between, and “potamos,” meaning river, thus giving it the name “the land between the rivers.”

The region lies mainly within the borders of present-day Iraq but also encompasses parts of neighbouring Kuwait, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.

It is no surprise that this area within the Fertile Crescent has been responsible for some of humankind's most important innovations and developments, in fields ranging from agriculture to mathematics and astronomy.

Thousands of years later, we bear witness to a very different scenario. Who would believe that the civilisation that introduced the wheel to the world would be in such social and political turmoil today?

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As the marshes dry up in front of our eyes, it has become apparent that water, Iraq’s most essential and coveted resource, is under severe threat. 

As the 20th anniversary of the fateful and catastrophic US-led invasion of Iraq approaches, I find it apt to explore what effect the war, as well as other political factors, has had upon this precious resource. What are the real-world effects on civilians who suffer as a result of the water crises within Iraq?

Troubled waters and warfare

Access to water and sanitation are recognised by the United Nations as human rights”.

Without a clean and powerful flow and supply of water, all civilians face dire consequences, especially those in the south who rely on river flow for their livelihood.

This, combined with pollution, constitutes a catastrophe for the residents of Basra, Amarah, and the other neighbouring cities in the marshes.

From a population of half a million in the 1950s, half a century later saw approximately 20,000 remain. In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes to punish its inhabitants, whom he accused of betrayal during the Iraq-Iran war between 1980-1988.

One of his tactics was to build dams, destroying the livelihoods of residents by withholding water. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, and by the year 2000, it was estimated that 90% of the marshes had disappeared.

Marsh Arab villages of woven reed houses on small islands dot the landscape where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet at the legendary site of the Garden of Eden. The Marshes were drained by Saddam Hussein after the Shiite Muslim inhabitants rebelled against his regime after the First Iraq war
Marsh villages of woven reed houses on small islands dot the landscape where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet at the legendary site of the Garden of Eden. The Marshes were drained by Saddam Hussein after the Shia Muslim inhabitants rebelled against his regime after the First Iraq war [Getty Images]

Following the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the US military retaliated with Operation Desert Storm. The 43-day bombing campaign against Iraq resulted in $232 billion worth of damage.

The Gulf War’s estimated civilian casualties amounted to between 100,000-200,000. Key water infrastructure was destroyed, including four of the country’s five hydroelectric dams, thus disabling many water treatment facilities.

Additionally, a sewage treatment plant was also a casualty of the operation, causing sewage to pour into the Tigris. US sanctions were the final nail in the coffin, ending the possibility of healing the Tigris and Euphrates.

Water purification chemicals were just but a few of the key resources that were banned. The combination of all of these factors contributed to outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases, which plagued the country for decades to come.

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The last time war had such a profound effect on Iraq’s rivers was in 1258. Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan laid siege to the city of Baghdad and destroyed the House of Wisdom, the intellectual epicentre of the Islamic world. According to legend, so many books were thrown into the Tigris that the waters ran black from the ink. Nearly 800 years later, has anything changed?

Polluted clouds have no silver lining

The effects of war and its pollutants go further than statistics. For every bullet that leaves the barrel of a gun, for every piece of shrapnel from a detonated bomb, and for every cloud of smoke of burning metal and flesh, there is an innocent person’s life which has been extinguished or permanently altered for the worse.

While the battle may be temporary for the soldiers involved, for the civilians, it becomes lifelong. The shelling of a town that results in the water systems being destroyed can pollute and contaminate tap water for a family, indefinitely.

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Another factor contributing to Iraq’s demise is the climate crisis. As of last month, the United Nations ranked Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change on earth.

A number of severe weather incidents, like dust storms, have contributed to the said result. Earlier this year, Iraq suffered nine separate dust storms in the space of two months, with the majority of them causing the majority of the public sector to close down each time.

The fifth-ever highest temperature recorded on Earth occurred in Basra, another city bound to the marshes, in 2016. Basra is the economic capital of Iraq, home to the richest oil wells in the country.

For two consecutive days in July 2016, the registered temperature was 53.9C. This is not a temperature that a human being can function normally at, even within a city with the proper resources meant for dealing with heat waves. Imagine having to deal with this in a country rife with power cuts and a supreme lack of public services. 

"The southern part of Iraq could end up becoming uninhabitable within our lifetime. The illegal US-led invasion displaced at least 9.2 million people. How many others will be displaced by global warming? Refugees from war will become refugees once again, this time from the climate crisis"

It’s a gradual decrease in quality of life which pushes civilians to the edge. That same month, hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets to voice their anger at the widespread power cuts that the southern part of the country was facing.

An Al Jazeera interview with a local named Sami Mohsin revealed that his only way to protect his children from the scorching heat was to drive them around in his car with the air conditioning on. A parent's fear of their children dying will push one to expensive and extraordinary lengths.

Half full, soon empty

Residents of the marshes have stated that being granted UNESCO world heritage status has done nothing to improve their quality of life.

They cite broken promises and negligence from the central government towards their plight, in regard to the constant worsening of their living conditions. These issues have provided predicaments for those whose descendants have inhabited this region for thousands of years.

Ahvar al-Chibayish people of Nasiriyah, the city center of Zikar province, earn their life by agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry, as did their ancestors. People of Ahvar living on the water's edge earn their living by selling the buffalo milk
The Marsh-based people of Ahvar al-Chibayish earn their keep through agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry, as their ancestors did [Getty Images]

The dilemma that is faced by the inhabitants of the marshes lies between perseverance and abandonment. With the majority of Marsh Arabs having already been displaced, one's choices lie between preserving history and heritage while facing debt and danger or abandoning the land in search of survival.

The southern part of Iraq could end up becoming uninhabitable within our lifetime.

The illegal US-led invasion displaced at least 9.2 million people. How many others will be displaced by global warming?

Refugees from war will become refugees once again, this time from the climate crisis. A report from the Institute for Economics and Peace stated that the climate crisis could displace 1.2 billion people worldwide by the year 2050.

A dictator, an invasion and a climate crisis… Iraqis cannot seem to catch a break.

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Since March 2003, if the Iraq war was ranked as a country in terms of emissions, it would emit more CO2 each year than 139 of the world’s nations do annually.

If all of the projected US spendings on the illegal war was rerouted, it would’ve been sufficient in covering all worldwide investments in developing renewable power structures from the year 2008 to the year 2030, in order to halt the current trajectory of global warming, according to the Oil Change International report.

It’s ironic that the downfall of Saddam in 2003 marked the return of some displaced Marsh Arabs, who proceeded to destroy the dams that he had built to punish them, resulting in water replenishing the deserts that lay where once were lakes.

Unfortunately, this proved to be only a drop in the ocean, and as time passes, we will see the evaporation of the marshes once again.

The first recorded story in history is the Epic of Gilgamesh – a legend in Mesopotamian mythology and folklore which details a great flood being sent to destroy mankind. Tears are drawn from those who have an affinity to the marshes as they witness the drying up of the land.

Although we wish for something of less magnitude than an epic flood to heal the region, we hope that the drying up of these marshes and the extreme weather events that follow, do not spell out the final chapter of Iraq’s story for good.

Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.

Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_