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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 November, 2003, 18:34 GMT
New hope for Iraq's Marsh Arabs

By Caroline Hawley
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

All that Sabiha Fadel has in the world is now stacked in the sun at the edge of the water. There isn't much of it.

Iraqi Marsh Arabs
Water is returning to the dried-up wetlands
"We were living in the desert with nothing," she said. "When the waters came back, we returned immediately. It's a gift from God."

During the 1990s, tens of thousands of people living in Iraq's southern marshlands were driven into destitution as Saddam Hussein dried up the water that had sustained a way of life dating back around 5,000 years.

To punish the Marsh Arabs for giving sanctuary to rebels fighting his regime, he destroyed the largest wetlands in the Middle East.

The marshlands, once the size of Wales, slowly became a desiccated wasteland.

The Marsh Arabs still remember their animals dying, their children getting sick, as the waters disappeared around them.

Brighter future

But now, with Saddam Hussein gone, one of the world's worst environmental disasters is being reversed.

The people, the birds and the buffaloes are back.

Sabiha Fadel is cooking fish, fresh from the new marshlands. Her daughter tends the family geese and cows, and her husband is out gathering reeds to build a new house.

Iraqi Marsh Arabs
Only a fraction of the marshland has been reflooded
Just a few metres away, Sabiha's 21-year old cousin, Hassen Jaber, fixes his slim wooden boat, preparing to push it out into the marshes for the first time since his family was forced to leave the marshlands when the waters dried up.

"I want to stay here and earn my living," he says. "The future's good. Thank God!"

The remnants of Saddam Hussein's elaborate scheme to deprive the marshlands of their lifeblood are now rusting silently.

The vast canal which diverted the river Euphrates, called the Mother of All Battles river, has been shut off.

Tiny waves now lap around abandoned artillery pieces that have been submerged by the rising waters.

Parched earth

Just a few days after the war ended, Ali Shaheen, a local irrigation official, brought in mechanical diggers to unblock Saddam Hussein's dams. He destroyed eight of them.

"As soon as the fighting stopped, the people of the Marshes came to us. They were wronged by the old regime. We wanted to bring them back and be happy," he said.

"You know, when Saddam was around, you weren't even allowed near the dams, so when the water began flowing again, people fired their guns in the air all night to celebrate."

Buffaloes in the Iraqi marshlands
The buffaloes are back
Now, fishermen throw out nets into waters shimmering in the sunlight. "This," says Shaheen, "was just a dream before."

So far, though, only a fraction of the former wetlands have been reflooded. A major obstacle lies in the way of recreating the pastoral idyll that Saddam destroyed - a lack of water.

Since the 1990s, Syria and Turkey have built new dams on the river Euphrates, weakening its flow.

Just a few miles from the new wetlands, a baking wind howls across the parched earth where the waters have not reached.

Here, shells on the ground are the only reminder of the unique ecosystem that Saddam destroyed.

Environmental crime

In the dust-blown town of Suq al-Shyouk, Thaer Shadoud, who used to fight in the marshes against Saddam's regime, prays for the waters to return to his birthplace.

He is unemployed. His extended family, hemmed into a tiny house, is practically penniless.

Iraqi Marsh Arab
Some Marsh Arabs are more fortunate than others
"Many of my relatives were killed, three of our family homes in the marshes were destroyed," he says. "Now I just want a stable, happy life. We hope God will send the water back."

But there is not enough water now to reflood the Shadoud family's old marsh areas, and bring them home.

In a region desperately short of water, it may be impossible to truly undo what has been called "the environmental crime of the century."

But that will not stop the Shadoud family hoping. Thaer's mother, Sadiya, remembers the marshlands as they were: "We had everything we needed there," she says.

"The marshes were beautiful. We ate from them. Here we have to buy everything. I'd like to go back."


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