Azzam Alwash: When we say 58 percent of the area is inundated, that means 58 percent of the area is covered with water at least partially for a portion of the year. When we say 45 percent of the area is in a state of robust recovery, that means that the reeds have grown to dense vegetation, there is some sort of recovery of the biodiversity, the fish population, the bird population, the human habitats have come back, the water buffalo is roaming the area.
RFE/RL: So, these parts of the marshes are covered with reeds again and much looks as it once did before?
Alwash: The reeds are not as dense as I remember them to be when I was in my teens or early childhood. But they are dense and you can see people in fact harvesting the reeds for selling as fodder for cattle in the cities and you can see water buffalo everywhere. There is one area called Abu Subat which is right in the center of the marshes. In 2003 there was hardly anybody, in fact, there was nobody alive there. I have pictures of the very first family that moved in June 2003. Today we have 150 families, we have 6,000 water buffalo. That is an incredible recovery.
RFE/RL: What about the Marsh Arabs, the age-old inhabitants of the region? Most were forced out by Hussein or by the loss of the wetlands where they once lived by fishing and tending water buffalo. Are they taking up their traditional ways of life as before?
Alwash: Fourteen years of drought and 14 years of no marshes, it takes a lot longer than 14 years to kill a 3,000- or 3,500-year-old culture. The people of the marshes, the Marsh Arabs, most of them were internally displaced, although some of them were externally displaced to Iran and to other areas of the world. The internally migrated Marsh Arabs continued their lifestyle, the weaving of reeds into mats for selling and barter, the building of their huts from reeds, and they have come back to the marshes despite the lack of [electrical or health] services. Today we have over 90,000 people who have come back to the marshes."
RFE/RL: You have said that the marshes today face an unexpected new threat, and that is overfishing by some of the villagers who are returning. Just what is the problem?
Alwash: What I see happening in the marshes is a practice of fishing that is extremely distressing to the environment. People are using, fishermen are using electricity to electrocute fish so they can get a bigger catch. But the problem of using electricity is that it kills fish from 1 inch long [2.5 centimeters] to 3 inches [8 cm] or 6 inches [15 cm] long. So, you are really affecting your future production from the area by using these kind of methods. Also, poison is used in some areas to get a big catch so that their income for today is big. But [the] next day when you come back to the same area to fish, there is nothing.
RFE/RL: There are other problems affecting the marshes' recovery that you mention, including the fact that water flow down the Tigris and Euphrates [rivers] has been reduced by dams far upstream in Turkey. How much has that cut water supplies?
Alwash: Coupled with the [Hussein-era] drying of the marshes, the projects specifically designed to divert the water away from the marshes, simultaneously Turkey proceeds with building something like 33 different dams on the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, cutting the inflow of water into Iraq by some 30 to 35 percent. So Iraq, instead of getting 100 billion cubic meters per annum as it used to before the dam-building era began, is now getting on the order of 60 or 55 billion cubic meters a year.
RFE/RL: The dams are said to not only reduce the water flowing down the Tigris and Euphrates but also to disrupt the seasonal flood cycle, whereby the rivers swell in spring to flood the marshes but diminish in the summer. How important is this flood cycle to the life of the marshes?
Alwash: The marshes expand during the spring floods and as they expand they push the brackish water that had accumulated from the year before -- from the evaporation of the year before -- but more importantly is the timing of this pulse. It is like a symphony. It is very important for the pulse to arrive when it arrives in the spring as the fish come from the [Persian] Gulf to spawn in the marshes.
RFE/RL: So what is your project recommending as the best way to proceed in the future? Is there a need for better regional management of water flow down these rivers and into the marshes if we hope to see them recover still further?
Alwash: Our master plan comes in fact with the models for the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates and we have come up with the conclusion that even with the limited water resources of Iraq today we can bring back up to 75 percent of the marshes [as they were in] 1975. But what is required obviously is putting in place a management program and monitoring program that is modern, that channels the water to the marshes when it is needed.
An Iraqi boy drinks from a waste-water reservoir near Baghdad (epa file photo)
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. Disputes about access to water are increasingly coming to the center of global attention, especially in China, India, and Central Asia. Writing about the 1967 Six Day War in his 2001 memoirs, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that "while border disputes between Syria and ourselves were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death." (more)