The marshes in southern Iraq, otherwise known as the Ahwar, formed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, are home to one of humanity’s oldest cultures. The Marsh Arabs developed their unique way of life around the resources of the marsh, once the third largest wetlands in the world. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers cross on the eastern edge of the marshes at the Shatt al-Arab; this intersection is thought to be a possible site of the historic Garden of Eden. In the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s forces secretly drained the immense Southern Iraq wetlands to punish the Shi’a rebels hiding there. The regime transformed it into a desert, murdering tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs and compelling hundreds of thousands more to flee. Conflict and violence altered the Marshlands into a desiccated parcel, disturbing its ecological composition, and leaving detrimental vestiges that still pose serious challenges to its survival.
Since Hussein’s demise in 2003, three hundred thousand of the expelled Marsh Arabs have returned to re-green and restore the marshes, with the help of Nature Iraq. Due to the rapid environmental changes in the marshes, with the return of inhabitants, serious sewage and health problems have ensued. Where a symbiotic, sustainable relationship once existed in the marshes balanced perfectly by healthy reeds, water buffalo trade, and rice and date cultivation, the system is now unstable. Waste has been piling up and the Euphrates River has become seriously polluted, putting the Marshlands and the Marsh Arab community at peril. There is currently no sewage treatment in the Marsh Arab towns and cities–at most, sewage is pumped into collection sites and discharged without treatment into the rivers or marshes. This is causing odor and damage to the long-term ecology of the marshes and the health of the community.