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In Iraq, drought is threatening one of that country's natural wonders, the vast southern marshland between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Saddam Hussein drained the wetlands after the 1991 Gulf War so that his troops could hunt down Shiite rebels who were hiding there.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, projects were launched to save both the marshes and the people who depend on them; a once vibrant culture based on fishing, reed gathering, and tending water buffalo.

But, as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, all that could soon be lost.

COREY FLINTOFF: A trip to the central marshes of Iraq starts in the town of Chubayish on the Euphrates River. Earthen dikes still line both banks of the river built by Saddam in the early '90s as part of a scheme to destroy the marshes and punish the people he accused of providing shelter for Shiite rebels.

The plan succeeded. A wetland as great as the Florida Everglades was reduced to a dusty plain. Local people say the population around Chubayish dropped from more than 50,000 to fewer than 8,000. People migrated to other parts of Iraq in search of work.

Jassim al-Asadi grew up in Chubayish and he was here when, just after the fall of Saddam's regime, the Marsh people took shovels and broke Saddam's embankment, letting the water of the river rush out onto the plain.

JASSIM AL: After we stopped the embankment and the water entered the marsh, and it became...

FLINTOFF: Asadi is now the local director of an environmental group called Nature Iraq. Most of the group's funding comes from the Environment Ministry of Italy, which had troops in the area early in the U.S.-led occupation.

Asadi says that as the marsh revived, many people returned swelling the population to around 36,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOTORBOAT)

FLINTOFF: The boat glides through the gap in the dike. Once inside, the steely gray of the river changes to a rich gold as the boat threads into a channel walled with reeds.

Even in Iraq's winter, new green growth is already forcing its way up among the dry stalks. Wading birds dart at the base of the reeds. Black and white kingfishers watch from the windblown plumes at the top. Water buffalo swim neck-deep in the channel.

For a short while, it's possible to see why some traditions say this was the Biblical Garden of Eden. The channel widens into a broad sheet of open water, Baghdadiyah Lake.

AL: You find in Al Baghdadiyah much quantities and much kind of the fishes, of the birds.

FLINTOFF: Asadi says local people still come here to fish and hunt migratory birds. They follow a centuries-old way of life that bears strong resemblances to a Sumerian culture that flourished here in the third millennium B.C.

AL: The water in most places is less than a foot deep, it should be four feet or more. This stretch of the marsh is the healthiest part of a very sick system. A drought is killing the marshes almost as effectively as Saddam did.

In the channel, fishermen pole their boat close to the reeds. They're using a portable generator with electrodes trailing in the water to shock the fish. The practice is illegal because it kills fish of all sizes, but the law is not enforced. Some of the fish in their boat are no bigger than a silver dollar. The biggest is no longer than a man's hand.

When Asadi asks why the men aren't fishing legally, one man shrugs.

AL: (Through translator) There's no water now. You see that land? The water there used to be one-meter deep. Before, we never had to fish this way.

FLINTOFF: The desperate need for water is a story repeated by nearly everyone who depends on the marshes. At the edge of the marsh, women unload bundles of green reeds they've brought to sell as cattle feed.

Rabab Nadwan Hudeid, 44, works among her daughters and nieces. The girls wear long, bright-patterned dresses, but they are veiled to the eyes. Hudeid's face is uncovered, tanned to a leathery brown, and her expression is woeful.

RABAB NADWAN HUDEID: (Through translator) I'm responsible for 10 people, all women and girls. This is how we live. If we go out, we can get enough money to eat. If not, we'll die of hunger. Without water to grow the reeds, what will we do?

A chill wind sweeps down from the north, laden with dust that's a reminder of the drought in the rest of Iraq. The wind whirls dust devils around a cluster of houses that sits on a brown plain near the river. People here raise water buffalo, a plentiful source of meat and milk that's prized in other parts of Iraq.

Ala'a Adbul Muhsin Abdullah says all his family's income comes from his cattle, and he fears he'll lose them to the drought.

ALA: (Through translator) The water has all dried up here. We have no reeds to feed our animals.

FLINTOFF: Abdullah says that as the water level drops, what remains becomes brackish and dirty, creating an opportunity for cattle diseases to spread. Last year, he says, many died.

Sheik Abul Abbas has spent most of his 73 years in Chubayish. He didn't leave even after Saddam drained the marshes. In his younger days, Abbas was a prosperous fish buyer.

ABUL ABBAS: (Through translator) During the season in June or July, I used to ship 10 truckloads of fish a day to neighboring towns.

FLINTOFF: If the marshes were fully revived, he says, they could supply fish for the entire country. Like many people in the marshland, the sheik says there's a relatively easy short-term fix that could restore some water to the marshes.

ABBAS: (Through translator) There's already a dike downriver from here. If the government dams the river there, it would back water up into the marshes, not as much as we'd like but enough to keep parts of the marshes alive.

FLINTOFF: Abbas says the provincial council has written to the Ministry of Water Resources asking that the dam be built.

Back in Baghdad, the water minister, Abdul Latif Rashid, says he's familiar with the request.

ABDUL LATIF RASHID: Our technical people are studying all the problems which are related to the marsh, not always when we get letters and requests from farmers or civil servants, that means technically viable or technically achievable, but we are looking at it.

FLINTOFF: The minister says the problem is partly natural, caused by the drought, and partly political. He says Turkey and Syria are diverting too much water from the Tigris and Euphrates for their own agriculture, and the Iraqi government is now trying to negotiate a fairer allocation of the resource.

Many people in the marshes say that if something doesn't happen soon, their livelihoods will dry up and they'll be forced to leave their homes again, this time for good. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can see a gallery of images of the marshes and the people who depend on them at our Web site, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: There was a big upset at the World Baseball Classic. The Netherlands beat the Dominican Republic. We'll go inside the world of Dutch baseball a little just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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