Can Iraq's lost marshes be restored?

By building ties between southern Iraq and South Carolina, scholar Jenny Pournelle hopes Iraq's marshes might benefit

A Marsh Arab village, 1974.
Nik Wheeler / Corbis

Long before Jenny Pournelle joined the University of South Carolina (USC) as a research fellow in the environment and sustainability program, she identified James Morris, director of the Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Science and the university’s expert on marsh restoration, as the person who could best help answer a question that had haunted her for more than a decade: Could Iraq’s southern marshes be brought back?

Pournelle, an archaeologist, has spent much of her academic career investigating the ancient civilizations that thrived along southern Iraq’s marshes. Her dissertation focused on the critical role that the wetlands, destroyed by Saddam Hussein in 1991, played in sustaining urban life over many millennia. Since 2012, because of the relationships she formed in Iraq while studying the country’s marshes, she has served as the informal facilitator of Iraqi-government-funded programs that have brought hundreds of graduate students to American universities, many of them to USC.

This April, a few weeks after Pournelle took southern Iraqi doctoral students to South Carolina’s marshes, she arranged for Morris to ride through Basra’s remaining marshes on a skiff. It was his first trip to Iraq, and he accompanied Pournelle there to assess the feasibility of bringing back the marshes and gauge Iraqis’ will to do so.

Akeed Abdullah stands next to his boat in a dried marsh in Hor al-Hammar in southern Iraq, during a severe drought in 2009.
Hadi Mizban / AP

Freshwater marshes and other wetlands once covered about 11,500 square miles of Iraq’s south, and 15,400 square miles across all of Iraq. Now, only about 1,150 square miles, or 10 percent, remain. And its people, the Marsh Arabs, who built their houses and boats from the reeds that once grew in abundance there, have been displaced and reduced to living in slums around cities such as Basra.

Prior attempts to restore Iraq’s marshes have focused on re-creating freshwater marshes, as they once were. In central Iraq, Azzam Alwash and the nonprofit organization he leads, Nature Iraq, have successfully re-flooded a portion of the freshwater wetlands there.  But because of the scarcity of freshwater in the country, Pournelle and USC experts were considering a different approach.

Before going to Iraq, Morris was skeptical that the freshwater marshes and the culture of the “National Geographic kind of Marsh Arab,” as he describes them, could be brought back.

“That’s a real tragedy,” says Morris. “The culture there, the Marsh Arabs, were an example of the most sustainable society that I know of, in that they were a more or less self-contained community that lived off of the resources they had available and didn’t need a lot of external resources; they depended on those reeds.”

The trip didn’t change his mind. But while Morris isn’t hopeful that freshwater marshes can be restored, he says there may be a way to instead introduce saltwater marshes or mangroves that can be replenished by treated wastewater or water discarded from nearby oil-drilling sites. While different types of fish and vegetation thrive in saltwater than in freshwater — the reeds, for example, need freshwater — the saltwater wetlands would nonetheless help to purify the air and water, Morris says. In addition, Marsh Arabs could cultivate and sell fish and other marine life that thrive there.   

Though Morris doesn’t see the same similarities to South Carolina that Pournelle sees in southern Iraq, he does find something familiar.

“There’s a huge bond between wetlands and the people who live in these areas,” he says. “I saw the same bond around Basra and the people there that I see in areas in the U.S that I know well.”

As the trip came to a close, Morris, Pournelle, University of Basra faculty and representatives from the oil companies that would need to redirect the discarded water from their drilling sites agreed they would meet again to discuss next steps.

The meeting, scheduled for the end of June, never happened. With fighters from the Islamic State on a steady march to Baghdad, like many other plans it has been postponed.

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