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.
"We were living in the desert with nothing," she said. "When the waters came back, we
returned immediately. It's a gift from God."
Water is returning to the dried-up wetlands
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
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.
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.
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.
Only a fraction of the marshland has been reflooded
"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
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.
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,"
"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."
Now, fishermen throw out nets into waters shimmering
in the sunlight. "This," says Shaheen, "was just a
The buffaloes are back
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
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
He is unemployed. His extended family,
hemmed into a tiny house, is practically penniless.
"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."
Some Marsh Arabs are more fortunate than others
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
"The marshes were beautiful. We ate from them. Here we have to buy everything. I'd like to go