American Elephants


Remember the Marsh Arabs of Iraq and Their Aquatic World. by The Elephant's Child

Do you remember the strange aquatic world  of the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq, said by Biblical scholars to be the site of the Garden of Eden, or the cradle of civilization?  The Mesopotamians settled in the fertile region where the Tigris river and the Euphrates meet in the fifth century B.C., and within a few generations it had become the site of an advanced Sumerian civilization.

Only 20 years ago, the amazing world of the Madan — the Marsh Arabs — thrived in the wetlands, far larger than the Everglades, in the southern end of Iraq.  For thousands of years the marshes had been the homeland of the Madan and their water buffalo and cows.  They lived in floating huts made of woven reeds, where they harvested reeds, hunted birds and caught fish.  But they backed a Shiite uprising against the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Saddam murdered thousands of the Marsh Arabs, killed their livestock , poisoned their water sources and burned their huts to the ground.  And then he excavated canals and built dikes to divert the water from the marshes.  Within a few years, the marshland was less than ten percent of its original size.  An area that was once teeming with wildlife — wild boar, hyenas, foxes, otters and even lions — had been turned into barren salt flats, poisoned and filled with land mines.  The remaining Marsh Arabs fled to Iran to live in refugee camps or went north to work as day laborers.  More than 500,000 people had been displaced.

Der Spiegel tells the story of Azzam Alwash, an American citizen and citizen of Iraq, a hydraulic engineer and the director of Nature Iraq, the country’s first and only environmental organization.  His goal is to save and restore the marshes. Only three months after the American invasion, Alwash returned to his native Iraq.  His father, who had worked in Iraq’s Water Ministry until the 1980s, had often taken him along when traveling in the marshes for his work or hunting geese.  Often his mother and two sisters came along on the boat trips.

Now about a third of the original river marshes are covered with water once again.  Teams are tearing out dams, channeling water from the canals back into parched areas, sowing native plants.  The marshes influence the climate.  The region became hotter after the marshland was destroyed.  Alwash and his collaborators are developing a plan for the country’s first national park, a protected area of about 386 square miles where the water supply will be regulated with a large number of floodgates.

The United States has canceled its financial support for the project.  There is still conflict and violence in the region. Turkey is building dams, and gradually reducing the flow of the rivers. The article is informative and thorough, and the pictures of the village of the Marsh Arabs as they lived in 1974 are amazing.  You cannot help but hope that their dreams of restoration come true.




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