The lede on a recent piece from The Guardian makes me wonder why we’re not hearing more about this story:
A water shortage described as the most critical since the earliest days of Iraq‘s civilisation is threatening to leave up to 2 million people in the south of the country without electricity and almost as many without drinking water.
(Possible reason we haven’t heard more: Like so many environmental stories, this one is not breaking news. It oozes, rather than breaks, as the saying goes. )
It sounds impressive anytime something is happening that hasn’t been known before in a particular country’s history. But recall that when we’re talking about Iraq, we’re talking about what appears to be the first civilization. Yes, we’re talking about the Garden of Eden, or at least the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Martin Chulov’s file from Nasiriyah covers death and disease resulting from saltwater intrusion, electricity from hydropower about to grind to a halt, and goes on to paint this grim picture:
Skiffs that once plied the lowland waters lie dry and splintering and ducks wallow in fetid green ponds that pocket the maze of feeder streams. Steel cans of drinking water bought by desperate locals line dirt roads like over-sized letter boxes.
The Euphrates, once broad and endlessly green, is now narrow and drab. In parts it is a slick black ooze, fit only for scores of bathing water buffalo. Giant pumps lay metres out of reach. Some are rusting.
The skiffs he writes of belong to the so-called “Marsh Arabs,” a people living in a marshy area near the Iranian border that is referred to in the Bible as the part of the world where the Garden of Eden was located.
I always said the acid test of the United States’ real intentions in “helping” Iraq would be whether we took it upon ourselves to rescue these people, who were severely persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Over the course of his rule, water was diverted away from the marshes, as you can see in the accompanying satellite photos. The genocide carried out against the Marsh Arabs numbered among the atrocities that backers of the Iraq invasion cited as justifying the war.
Part of the current water shortage can be explained by additional withholding of water by Turkey and Syria, which are upstream on the Euphrates. But two winters of punishing drought are interrupting what was supposed to be the revival of the marshes. Ernesto Londono of The Washington Post captured the stormy history and the desperation of the Marsh Arabs in his recent piece.
But Londono also found the silver lining on the non-existent raincoulds, noting that the Iraqi government has spent $150 million trying to restore the marshes. He quotes Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi American who runs Nature Iraq, an organization dedicated to the restoration of the marshes:
This is the story of the phoenix rising from the ashes. It is one of the few instances where war improved environmental conditions.