TED Case Studies

Marsh Arabs

        CASE NUMBER:        189
        CASE NAME:          Marsh Arabs and Water Loss

1.         The Issue
     Since the Gulf War, various news reports, essays, and
critiques have been published concerning the physical devastation
brought about by coalition force bombing attacks.  No doubt, the 
ruinous aftermath remains a very important environmental, economic,
and cultural concern.  One of the more important internal problems,
however, has been quietly unfolding over the past four years.  It
involves an attempt, by the Iraqi Government, to force the Ma'dan
people (roughly 500,000 of them), the so-called 'Marsh Arabs,' out
of their southern wetland settlements by literally "draining life
from Iraq's marshes."  Reaching beyond the social and political
ramifications, the permanent environmental and economic damage
caused by this policy may be irreversible.  By diverting the water
flow of one of the most famous and important river systems in the
world (the Tigris/Euphrates), the Iraqi leaders appear to be
tampering with not only their environment but with their historical
legacy, as well.
2.         Description
     The idea of draining the marshlands of southern Iraq is not a
new concept, and certainly not the first time the Tigris-Euphrates
river system has been harnessed for man's use.  The delta/marsh
area "was probably the first region of the world where humans
gained mastery over major rivers.  Irrigation and flood protection
were vital to the farmers who fed the inhabitants of the world's
first known cities, built in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years
ago."  The marshlands region was part of this development.
     Over the years, as technology improved, dams were built to
harness water and energy for irrigation and electricity.  Within
Iraq, there are at least four dams on the Euphrates and three major
dams on the Tigris, which are contributing heavily to a water
shortage in the area.
     The first major marsh-draining scheme was proposed in the 1951
Haigh Report, "Control of the Rivers of Iraq," drafted by British
engineers working for the Iraqi government.  "The report describes
an array of sluices, embankments and canals on the lower reaches of
the Tigris and Euphrates that would be needed to 'reclaim' the
marshes."  The study's senior engineer, Frank Haigh, felt that the
standing marsh water was being wasted, so he "proposed
concentrating the flow of the Tigris [River] into a few embanked
channels that would not overflow into the marshes.  He proposed one
large canal through the main `Amara marsh."  In this way, Iraq
would be able to "capture the marsh water for irrigation" purposes
to aid in feeding the newly created State of Iraq.
     Construction of the large canal, called the Third River, began
in 1953.  Further construction took place in the 1960's.  It was
not until the 1980's, however, during the Iran-Iraq War, that major
work was resumed.  Today, many of the water projects in the marsh
area bear a striking resemblance to the Haigh Plan -- the only
problem is that the projects are not being used for agricultural
     Various international organizations such as the U.N. Human
Rights Commission, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in
Iraq (SCIRI), the International Wildfowl and Wetlands Research
Bureau, and Middle East Watch have been monitoring the Iraqi
situation.  All have found evidence to indicate that the Iraqi
Government has been attempting to force the Ma'dan people from
their homes through water diversion tactics copied from the Haigh
Report.  Iraq's majority Sunni government is attempting to weaken
the Ma'dan because they are Shiite Muslims, maintaining religious
links with Iran's Shiite leadership.  They have also been accused
by the government of harboring refugees from oppression in
     Since the end of the Gulf War, the above-mentioned
organizations have uncovered the following intelligence:  1) By
1993, the Iraqi Government was able to prevent water from reaching
two-thirds of the marshlands.  2) The flow of the Euphrates River
has almost been entirely diverted to the Third River Canal,
bypassing most of the marshes.  3) The flow of the Tigris River has
been channeled into tributary rivers (with artificially high
banks), prohibiting the tributary water from seeping into the
     As a result, the environmental effects are thought to be
"irreversible with disastrous ecological, social and human
consequences for the region."  The sparse water remaining has
contributed to the salinization of the land.  "Over-irrigation and
poor drainage compound the problem:  as the stagnant water
evaporates, it leaves behind a crust of salt."   The future for
wildlife in the region looks bleak, as well.  The marshes are home
to fish and migratory birds from western Eurasia such as pelicans,
herons and flamingos.  Without fresh water, the ecosystem will
easily become damaged.
     In economic terms, the effects are just as severe.  The
marshlands region, is home to various crops, trees and livestock. 
The staple crops of the region are rice and millet.  Date palms
from the area have played an important part in Iraqi exports as
well as the weaved reed mats and harvested cereals from the Ma'dan
people.  The marshes are also home to cows, oxen, and water
buffalo.  The recent scarcity of water in the marshlands has
contributed to transport problems, which has all but put a stop to
economic movement in the region.  "Instead of moving...goods by
boat the Ma'dan are often having to struggle through hip-deep mud
on foot...in addition, hundreds of thousands of inhabitants have
fled their areas.  If this process continues, Saddam Hussein will
become responsible for destroying not only the environment and
culture, but one of the oldest and most important links with Iraq's
past -- the people of the marshlands.
3.         Related Cases

     COLORADO Case
     ISRAELH2 Case
     ATATURK Case
     ARAL Case

     Keyword Clusters
     (1): Bio-geography               = LAND, RIVER, DELTA
     (2): Environmental Problem       = HABITat loss, BIODIV 
     (3): Trade Problem               = FOODs
4.         Draft Author:  Robert D. Cohen
B.         LEGAL Clusters
5.         Discourse and Status:  INPROGress
     The U.N. has been attempting to monitor the situation in the
southern marshes of Iraq.  The one piece of legislation applying to
the marshlands situation is U.N. Resolution 688, passed April 6,
1991.  "This resolution calls on the Iraqi government to provide
free access to United Nations and non-governmental humanitarian
agencies to all parts of the marshes so that essential humanitarian
assistance can be provided."  In January 1995, the European
Parliament (EP) also passed a resolution "characterizing the
[M]arsh Arabs as a persecuted minority 'whose very survival is
threatened by the Iraqi Government.'  The EP resolution described
the Government's treatment of the marsh inhabitants as
'genocide'."  In March 1995, the European Parliament adopted
another resolution deploring the continuing attacks on Marsh Arabs. 
Furthermore, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, in March 1995,
passed a resolution calling for an end to military operations and
efforts to drain the swamplands.  
6.         Forum and Scope:  (OPEN) and REGION
     Since all of the environmental and economic damage to the
marshlands is yet to be seen, there has not been any formal legal
case brought before a forum at this time.  The United Nations,
however, appears to be the likely forum for legislative activity.
 7.       Decision Breadth:  N/A
     If and when a law is passed, the decision breadth will
probably come from a multi-national organization, such as the U.N. 
It is also possible that unilateral action will be taken against
Iraq's marshlands policy.  The United States has already (through
U.N. auspices) enforced a "no-fly" zone in the south in an attempt
to crack Iraq's inhumane activities.
8.         Legal Standing:  N/A
     As of this writing, no other legal proceedings have been found
that reveal any treaty or legislation aimed at curbing the
environmental or economic degradation of the Iraqi marshlands.  The
Iraqi government has not declared the lands as part of the RAMSAR
CONVENTION, "the international treaty that protects wetlands."
C.        GEOGRAPHIC Clusters
9.         Geographic Locations
     a.    Geographic Domain : MIDEAST
     b.    Geographic Site   : SMID
     c.    Geographic Impact : IRAQ
     The worst destruction is located in the southeast sector of
Iraq, between the cities of Amara, Nassiriyah, and Basra (in the
land of ancient Mesopotamia).  The `Amara Marsh, near the
confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is home to the
Ma'dan people.  The `Amara Marsh has been most affected by the
drainage scheme.
     Another geographical concern involves water shortage.  The
Middle East continually suffers from drought and water amounts are
always near critical levels.  "The region's accelerating
population, expanding agriculture, industrialization, and higher
living standards demand more fresh water."  Dam-building is
adding to the problem.  For example, Turkey just recently completed
building the Ataturk Dam [1993] on the Euphrates River.  This dam
is now capable of harnessing river water for irrigation and power
purposes.  Since 90 percent of the water for the Euphrates
originates in Turkey, any amount kept by Turkey will decrease
waterflows to other nations downstream (i.e., Syria and Iraq). 
This is another reason why the Iraqi marshlands have been drying-
     There is no "legally binding obligation" to prohibit Turkey
from taking the river water.  Neighboring countries suffering
shortages can press for fair treatment by claiming "historical
rights of use", but this usually comes to no avail.  In the area,
Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have set up a "technical committee" to
share hydrological information, but it has made "no real
10.        Sub-National Factors:  YES
     Since the Iraqi Government is attempting to exterminate a
minority within its own borders, this issue can be defined as Sub-
National.  Most of the environmental and trade effects are Sub-
National, as well.
       People have been living in the area of the southern marshes
for thousands of years.  The ancestors of the Ma'dan (currently the
largest group of marsh dwellers, numbering around 500,000) were
"partly descendants of the Sumerians and Babylonians, although
their numbers have been augmented by immigrations and
intermarriages with the Persians on the east and the bedouins on
the west."  Before the marsh drainage, the lifestyle of the
Ma'dan centered around agriculture, particularly cultivating rice
and dates, weaving reed mats, raising water buffalo, and fishing. 
A form of local commerce had developed involving mostly local
trade, supported by the use of small boats for transportation.
     Since the Ma'dan are Shiite Muslims (sympathizing with the
majority leadership in neighboring Iran), and the Iraqi Government
is made up of Sunni Muslims, tensions have been steadily on the
rise.  After the Gulf War ended in 1991, the southern Shiites, at
the urging of the coalition forces, started an uprising against
Saddam Hussein's government.  The uprising was immediately crushed
by Iraqi forces and the systematic drying of the land began due to
the fact that many Shiites who took part in the uprising fled to
hide in the marshlands!  Hence, the Ma'dan have been "flushed-
out" along with the rebels, "mercilessly", as part of the
government's revenge scheme. 
11.        Type of Habitat:  DRY (delta area near Persian Gulf)
D.         TRADE Clusters
12.        Type of Measure:  None
     United Nations trade sanctions have been placed on Iraq due to
its human rights violations, but no environmental or trade
restrictions have been passed to curtail its waterflow policies. 
Perhaps, if the policy continues to drain the marshlands,
neighboring countries will begin to protest (i.e., Iran, Kuwait).
13.        Direct vs. Indirect Impacts:  DIRect
14.        Relation of Measure to Environment Impact
     a.  Directly Related           : NO
     b.  Indirectly Related         : YES  AGRICulture
     c.  Not Related                : NO
     d.  Process Related            : YES  HABITat loss
     Though there is no legislation dealing with the marshlands
environment, one can easily see how the relations might be drawn.
15.        Trade Product Identification:  FOOD, NOTH
     Crops involved are:  paddy rice and great millet.  Other
Products/items from the marsh area used in trade are:  grain
cereals, dates, fish and woven reed mats form the Ma'dan people. 
Most of the trade has been internal (within Iraq), supporting the
Ma'dan people.  With the loss of valuable water, however, this
way of life is quickly coming to an end.  The water-based rural
economy of the Marsh Arabs is being exterminated.
16.        Economic Data
     Most of the damage is environmental in nature.  Water,
nevertheless, is becoming a highly valued commodity and its
unbridled drainage will certainly cause future problems.  Trade
sanctions (on oil) imposed by the United States, under UN auspices,
have hurt Iraq ever since the Kuwait invasion. The Iraqi
Government's continuing drainage scheme will only serve to prolong
the sanctions' enforcement. 
17.        Impact of Measure on Trade Competitiveness:  N/A
     The impact of U.N. sanctions has already reduced Iraq's trade
competitiveness considerably.  For example, "before the imposition
of the oil embargo in August 1990, Iraq imported food and medical
products worth $3-4 billion a year.  The revenue available today
for those types of imports, including those arriving as contraband
from Jordan, Turkey, and Iran, does not exceed a billion
dollars."  More sanctions or legal actions could cripple Iraq
even further.
18.        Industry Sector:  CRAFT
     For hundreds of years, the Ma'dan have cut river reeds and
used them to produce mats, fences, and homes.  Reed has also been
used to make beds, cots, baskets and canoe poles.  Crafting reed
products has helped sustain the Ma'dan and has given them the
opportunity to barter with people from the surrounding countryside. 
As the marshes are drained, and the Ma'dan are forced to flee their
homeland, this important part of their culture will disappear.
19.        Exporter and Importer:  N/A
     Besides products like dates and rice, the southern marsh
dwellers do not produce many items for export.  Most Ma'dan trade
has taken place within Iraq's borders.
20.        Environment Problem Type:  HABITat loss
     Due to the marsh draining, there is a large bio-diversity
problem.  FISH, BIRDS, and HUMANS are being displaced.  CROPS are
also being destroyed, as well as the LAND and the marshes
themselves.  The salinization of the land is polluting formerly
good agricultural areas, such as the land surrounding the `Amara
21.        Name, Type, and Diversity of Species
           Name:           FISH, BIRDS, HUMANS
           Type:           Animal
     This case can also be described as a Bio-diversity problem.
22.        Impact and Effect:  HIGH and STRCT
     The case has caused HIGH and immediate impact upon the
marshlands.  The LAND has suffered many of the effects and will
continue to do so as long as the ecosystem continues to
deteriorate.  The Ma'dan people are suffering HIGH impacts, as
23.        Urgency and Lifetime:  HIGH and 50 years
     If the marshes continue to be drained at the current rate,
they will probably become non-existent in another 50 years.
24.        Substitutes:  RECYC
F.         OTHER Factors
25.        Culture:  YES
     A way of culture is being snuffed out.  The Ma'dan are being
forced to leave their homeland and a link to the ancient past is
disappearing quickly.
26.        Trans-Border:  NO
     As of this writing, there has been no major outcry from
neighboring Iran about the marsh-draining or human displacement,
though the marshlands do border Iran.  However, about 650,000 Iraqi
refugees have crossed over the Iraqi border to Iran to escape Iraqi
military operations directed against them.
27.        Rights:  YES
     As mentioned above, the U.N. Human Rights Commission and
Middle East Watch have been monitoring the situation.
28.        Gender:  NO
29.        Geo-Politics:  YES
     Iraq has been accused of following through with its marsh-
draining project for military and political purposes -- not for
agricultural purposes, as the official line insists.  An official
Iraqi document in the possession of an Iraqi engineer who was
captured by resistance forces in the area, provides details about
what is transpiring in the marsh area:  "It contained instructions
to 'withdraw all foodstuffs, ban the sale of fish and prohibit
transport to and from the areas.' Mass arrests, assassinations,
poisoning the water and burning villages were also ordered by the
Iraqi regime."  Agriculture has nothing to do with what is
actually transpiring.
30.        Relevant Literature
Hazelton, Fran, ed. Iraq Since the Gulf War:  Prospects for
     Democracy (London:  Zed Books, Ltd., 1994).
Salim, S. M. Marsh Dwellers of the Euphrates Delta (London:  The
     Athlone Press, 1962).
Gleick, Peter H., Haleh Hatami, Peter Yolles.  "Water, War, and
     Peace in the Middle East:  Conflict Over Water Rights." 
     Environment 36/3 (April, 1994).
Pearce, Fred.  "Draining Life From Iraq's Marshes."  New
     Scientist 138/1869 (April 17, 1993).
Rouleau, Eric.  "America's Unyielding Policy Toward Iraq." 
     Foreign Affairs 74/1 (January/February 1995).
Vesilind, Priit J.  "The Middle East's Water:  Critical
     Resource."  National Geographic 183/5 (May, 1993).
"Iraq:  Down but not out."  The Economist 335/7909 (April 8, 1995).
Deutsche Press-Agentur (March 8, 1995).
Reuter EC Report (March 20, 1995).
U.S. Department of State Dispatch, March, 1995.

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