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The BBC's David Campanale
"The land lost to the drainage programme has turned to desert"
 real 56k

Monday, 21 May, 2001, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Iraqi Marsh Arabs seek aid
Marsh Arabs from southern Iraq
Nearly 90% of the marshes have been drained
By the BBC's Fergus Nicoll

An international charity representing nearly 100,000 Madan people - known as Marsh Arabs - from southern Iraq has called for a global campaign to restore thousands of kilometres of marshes, drained by the Iraqi government.

The South Iraqi Marshes Project, led by a UK Member of the European Parliament, Baroness Emma Nicholson, has produced new satellite images to illustrate the massive environmental and social degradation caused by the draining of nearly 90% of the marshes.

An estimated 95,000 Marsh Arabs have been forced to seek refuge in neighbouring Iran to escape what they say are the repressive policies of the Saddam Hussein government in Baghdad.

Only 12 years ago, the marshes of southern Iraq - fed by two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates - were vast shallow inland freshwater seas with swathes of rich vegetation.

Islands of straw

The Marsh Arabs lived on islands built from reeds and straw in homes ranging from small huts to reed halls 30 metres (100 feet) long.

The marshes teemed with wildlife - fish, buffalo, wild boar, lizards and millions of birds.

Since the Gulf War ended in 1991, all that has changed.

In a policy designed to crush resistance in a predominantly Shia Muslim area that was almost impossible to police, Saddam Hussein ordered the marshes to be drained.

Rivers diverted

Huge earth walls were constructed across the southern plains, the water diverted into the new Mother of Battles Canal, away from the Marsh Arabs' home.

The flow of the Euphrates was also diverted.

New satellite imagery commissioned by the project reveals the extent of the destruction.

Comparison of images taken in 1992 and last year reveal that just 10% of the three main marshes - al-Hammar, Central and al-Haweiza - remain, the rest is bleached dry, a dead and dessicated land.

Social impact

As serious as the environmental damage is the impact on the people of the region.

Draining the marshes has allowed the Iraqi authorities full military access. As a result, tens of thousands have fled - nearly 100,000 across the border to Iran.

Others live in arduous conditions in refugee settlements around towns such as Nasriyeh.

According to Baroness Nicholson, the complete dislocation of a centuries-old way of life has traumatised the marsh people beyond belief.

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See also:

04 Jan 01 | Middle East
Saddam Hussein profile
24 Jan 99 | Middle East
Saddam Hussein: His rise to power
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