Twilight People: Iraq's Marsh Inhabitants
Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" (Spring 2004)
April 27, 2004
The Marsh Inhabitants — often referred to as Marsh Arabs or “Ma’dan” — are an indigenous group of approximately 500,000 people who have inhabited Iraq’s southern marshlands for thousands of years. Their livelihood, culture, and way of life have always depended on the wetland ecosystem of Mesopotamia, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Even as late as the 1970s the region was home to a recognizable and sustainable culture based on the gifts of the marshes — including slowly-flowing shallow water, extensive beds of towering reeds, and abundant fish, game, and migratory birds.
Against this background the Iraqi government unleashed a “Plan for the Marshes” — a deliberate strategy of aggression designed to uproot and exterminate the Marsh Inhabitants and any recalcitrant Shi’a seeking refuge among them. This assault occurred within the larger context of the regime’s continuing persecution of Shi’a faith and culture. Ba’thist authorities destroyed and desecrated holy sites; demolished libraries, mosques, and hussainiyas (places of religious worship); restricted Shi’a religious rites and practices; and banned or censored printed materials and media.
Almost immediately following the 1991 Gulf War, refugees fleeing the marshlands reported that residents were being subjected to terrorist explosions and the burning of their homes and villages. In addition, the government had embarked on two kinds of engineering attacks — damming and draining — against the region’s unique hydrology. New artificial dams and levees prevented the flow of water from the myriad distributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates that normally watered and nourished the marshlands. Consequently, the marshes rapidly began to dry, the fish and reed-beds began to die, and the people and their livestock began to suffer from thirst. The government also excavated large drains or canals across the region, short-circuiting the rivers so they flowed directly to the Gulf.
These attacks accelerated the drying of the marshes and the dying of the people. Although Iraq claimed that the structures were part of dryland agricultural development, the U.N. Human Rights Rapporteur at the time, Max van der Stoel, firmly stated in 1993 that “there’s not the slightest indication that [the government is] working on such a program. Every indication points in the same direction: they do this purely for military purposes, they want to subdue these people.”
One of the authors of this essay, Sayyed Nadeem Kazmi, first visited the marshlands region on the Iraq-Iran border as an independent writer in 1991, shortly after the Shi’a uprising against the Iraqi regime. During Kazmi’s visit, he saw the effects of Saddam Hussein’s policy of extermination. In the temporary refugee camps of southwestern Iran, men, women, and children related tales of torture and execution, of infants being used as shields on tanks to deter rebel snipers, and of the government’s scorched-earth policy. To make matters worse, these proud yet humble displaced people seemed to have no one to champion their cause.
Awareness and sympathy for the people of the marshes did not arise until the post-Gulf War period, when British citizens and Iraqi exiles began to visit the Iranian refugee camps in the early 1990s. Among those visiting were Baroness Emma Nicholson and Peter Clark, who created the humanitarian relief organization AMAR (Assisting Marsh Arab Refugees), and the Al-Khoei Foundation, which enabled Michael Wood and Rebecca Dobbs of Maya Vision Films to enter the region and produce the documentary “Saddam’s Killing Fields.” From that point to the mid-1990s, human rights observers, film-makers, and relief workers worldwide filed stories about the repression in Southern Iraq and the destruction of the marshes. Still, neither the United States nor Britain initiated any remedies despite their daily sorties over the marshlands to enforce the so-called “Southern No-Fly Zone.”
The assault on the Marsh Inhabitants clearly violated norms expressed in numerous laws and conventions — from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the Law of the Sea Convention, to the Biodiversity Convention on the Environment and Development, to the Hague Convention for Protection of Cultural Property. In addition, the 1994 “Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment” expressed the international community’s evolving recognition of the environmental dimension of human rights — highlighting, for example, the rights to life, health, and culture, wherein “Indigenous peoples have the right to protection against any action or course of conduct that may result in the destruction or degradation of their territories.” Further, some scholars and activists have argued that Iraq’s use of environmental warfare constitutes genocide against the Marsh Inhabitants. Thus, the U.N. Genocide Convention of 1948 could also apply, which condemns “deliberately inflicting on [a] group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” with the intent “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” The Marsh Inhabitants, whose culture dates back millennia, are a distinct population within that definition. The Iraqi government’s assault on the Marsh Inhabitants and the draining of the marshes have had an enormous ecological effect that reaches far beyond Iraq’s borders. Among respected observers, scholar Joseph Dellapena has written, “An inevitable consequence of such massive destruction is the extinction of species of animals and plants that were endemic to the marshes and are found nowhere else. Because these were the largest wetlands in western Asia and one of the largest in the world, the destruction of these marshes has effects far beyond the region itself.” Further, the marsh region is a timeless annual resting place for millions of migratory birds, and an important area for the life cycles of migratory fish and shrimp that move through the Tigris and Euphrates river basins and Persian Gulf.
Restoration of the marshes is therefore important for both humanitarian and ecological reasons. When the United States and Britain led the re-invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was expected that they would also lead the effort to restore the marshlands. Indeed, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged in a press release in early 2003 to “work with other partners to arrest further environmental degradation and begin the restoration of these globally important wetlands.” The United States sent a senior specialist from the Army Corps of Engineers to convert Iraq’s old Ministry of Irrigation into a Ministry of Water Resources that would become responsible for the fate of the marshes; and under the overall website of the Coalition Provisional Authority, an informative Ministry website appeared. Initially, this Ministry website contained a “Brief Environmental Description of the Marshes,” “Notes for Ecorestoration Projects,” and a “One-Year Strategic Plan,” which included a schedule for “six marsh restoration, scientific monitoring, and planning projects.” Then, without explanation, these documents disappeared, leaving nothing but a “Schematic Diagram for Storage and Control of Water in Iraq” that bore the Army Corps’ logo and retained the offending dams, levees, and great drains. In 2004, even this disappeared, and there is now no evidence of a Ministry website. (The original website contents are available from the authors by request to firstname.lastname@example.org)
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, local officials blocked one of Saddam’s artificial rivers (the “Mother of All Battles River”) that drained the Euphrates, thus re-flooding 10 percent of the marshes near Nasiriyah. However, we know of no comprehensive plan to renew the flow of water through the entire marshes. Furthermore, the U.S. emphasis now appears to be on conserving the very small portion of the former marshes that remains along the Iranian border, rather than restoring the entire region where hundreds of thousands of people once lived. As of this writing, only $4 million of ad-hoc funds have been allotted, and this only for field trips, modeling, sampling, etc., rather than physical restoration. USAID has not awarded a single public, competitive contract to restore the marshes, although there have been billions of dollars for other Iraq relief and reconstruction contracts. Furthermore, the lack of transparency in the reconstruction process is worrisome: The contracts are not available for public reading, there is no public participation process for evaluating them, and no environmental or social impact statements are required in the manner of those required by the U.S. Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
The destruction of the marshlands and the Marsh Inhabitants’ distinctive way of life remains even now both a humanitarian and environmental imperative of global importance. Those who are charged with rebuilding Iraq and with redressing the violations of human rights within that beleaguered nation need to recognize that re-flooding the marshes is a fundamental imperative. Remnants of the Marsh culture should not be abandoned as a lost people, nor should their homeland be left as desiccated wastes for oil, agribusiness, and other business interests to develop at will. The international community ought to ensure that the Shi’a Marsh Inhabitants have what they need to restore and reinhabit their homeland and to again shape the region in a sustainable manner. Not to do so prolongs the human and environmental injustice begun by Saddam Hussein’s regime.