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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

05 May 2005

USAID Helps Restore Iraqi Marshlands Destroyed by Saddam Hussein

Program also provides livelihood to displaced inhabitants

By Afzal Khan
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington - The homeland of the Shi’ite Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, which was drained almost dry by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, now is being rejuvenated under a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI), a Maryland-based development consulting firm, is managing the Iraq Marshlands Restoration Program. The two-year, $4 million project that ends in September is establishing infrastructure and agricultural assistance programs that will help the Iraqi government manage the restoration of the marshland ecosystem through strategic re-flooding. It is also providing social and economic assistance to the displaced Marsh Arabs, or Mad’an, who now number fewer than 125,000.

DAI’s Peter Reiss, who is in charge of the project, said in a recent interview that his team is assessing the state of the marshlands following the sudden re-flooding of the area by jubilant local authorities after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. He said the haphazard and unregulated destruction of the former regime’s dams and dikes, which were designed to divert water from the marshlands, has created further ecological problems.

Reiss said that even though the restoration of the waters has returned some parts of the marshlands to their previous state of fertility, other areas have become dead lakes due to excessive salinity in the soil and water. In addition, the topsoil in some drained areas was baked into a hard impervious crust after the dry reeds were burned.

After the aborted Shi’ite uprising against Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam’s military raided the homeland of the Mad’an, killing thousands and displacing many more. Waters feeding the marshlands were diverted for crop irrigation. By 1999, less than 10 percent of the marshlands remained intact, mostly along the southeastern border with Iran.

In the early 1970s, the marshlands covered some 15,000 square kilometers comprising three main marshes and a dozen smaller ones – the largest wetlands in Western Asia, and twice the size of the Florida Everglades. At that time, an estimated 350,000 Mad’an made their living on the marshes.

“These marshlands go back to the beginning of history, and 5,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablets that have been excavated depict the same kind of reed-built houses that the Marsh Arabs live in today,” Reiss said.


Since the re-flooding of the marshes began in the spring of 2003, between 20 percent and 30 percent of the total area has been submerged. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on a $500,000 project to develop a hydrologic water-management model that will help reconstruct the historic flow of water from the Euphrates and Tigris river basins into the marshes. This effort is being coordinated with the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources.

At the same time, DAI has allocated $250,000 to the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources to create a soil and water laboratory that will analyze the effects of the re-flooding on the marshlands.

Meanwhile, the Mad’an, many of whom have been living in refugee camps in Iran, are returning to their former land.  Most are being resettled on the edges of the marshes as farmers, dairymen and fishermen.

Reiss said the marsh restoration program includes numerous agricultural projects aimed at providing the returning Mad’an with a livelihood. These include: restoring destroyed date palm groves; introducing better varieties of wheat and new crops of sorghum and broad beans; improving animal-husbandry practices, alfalfa production and veterinary services to boost dairy production; and restocking high-value, indigenous fish to replenish depleted supplies.

The date palm rehabilitation program has had tremendous success, Reiss said. Iraq produces 629 varieties of high-quality dates, more than any other country.  Date palm nurseries of 1,000 saplings first planted in the spring of 2004, he said, have seen an unusually high survival rate of 90 percent.

Reiss said the market for dates is strong in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. As production increases, export of dates will target European, North American and Japanese markets currently dominated by Israel, Algeria and Tunisia.

Also, in the spring of 2004, the agricultural team set up pilot projects on 72 farms in the marshlands to demonstrate how to grow better crops by adopting scientific methods of farming.  A spring planting of sorghum yielded a summer crop, and an autumn planting of wheat, barley and broad beans produced a winter crop.  Reiss called the results very encouraging.

The agricultural team also introduced alfalfa cultivation to provide feed for water buffaloes, cattle and sheep in the winter when no green fodder is available. Livestock already have shown improved health and better milk quality, including higher levels of protein, Reiss said.

A veterinary team began working in the villages of the marshlands in the autumn of 2004. According to the villagers, this was the first time in memory that veterinarians had checked and vaccinated their animals. The program’s veterinarians have inoculated more than 14,000 animals so far, Reiss said.

To boost fishing capacity, 2.5 million bunni fish fingerlings will be released in the marshes this August. To achieve this goal, the team has collected more than 200 kilograms of live male and female brood stock to be spawned artificially.

Reiss emphasized that a fundamental goal of the project is to involve the Iraqis so that they ultimately will be able to manage the restoration of the marshlands.

It may not be possible to restore the Iraqi marshlands to what they were in the 1970s, as they are now competing for water with the Ataturk dam on the Turkish portion of the Euphrates and Iranian dams on the Karkheh and Karun rivers. 

The restoration also may be challenged by the development of oil fields in the area. Reiss said that some reports suggest the marshlands sit on one of the largest oil fields in the world – an extension of the already existing al-Majnoon oil field. He said the oil field was called “majnoon,” or crazy in Arabic, because its wells gush in uncontrollable quantity.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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