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History of Marshlands

Marshlands of Iraq
Photo1: A woman collects water from Prosperity River in Basrah Marshlands of Iraq ( Source: USAID, Flickr).

Formation of the marshes

The marshlands originated in the Holocene era. Some researchers claim that in about 5,000-4,000 BC, the marshlands were covered by a lagoonal marine environment, likely having brackish waters. With rising sea levels after a glacial period, the rivers began to deposit sediment and create vast deltas, which caused the shoreline to progress to its present location, possibly between 3,000-1,000 BC. The present fresh-to-brackish water environment is estimated to have been established around 3,000 years ago.[1]

Early history of the marshlands

Some of the earliest records of civilization are on the fringes of the marshlands. Little archaeological exploration has been carried out within the marshes themselves. Mounds, known as tells, rising above the marsh waters are believed to be the sites of ancient cities.

The Sumerians flourished around the marshlands between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s first epic poem, mentions the marshlands: ‘Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood’. Artefacts in the Iraqi Museum represent Gilgamesh with water buffaloes in the Tigris and Euphrates. The boats used by marsh dwellers today are almost identical to those found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Clay tablets from the Sumerian period describe the marshes’ abundant wildlife.

The Sumerians were followed by the Assyrians. The Assyrians called the marshes Narmrtu (‘the bitter water’) or Tamdu Shamatu Kildi (‘the sea of the city of Kildah’).[2]

The Arab and Ottoman Empires

Historical sources indicate that the marshlands were small before the Arabs came to Iraq because the first rulers of the area took great care to drain the water gathered in the lands near Babylon. They dug canals and drainage systems across large areas and turned the land into fields. The Arabs called the lakes and marshes al-Bataih (‘the lands covered with torrents’). The areas around the marshes were well-populated.

With the advent of war and the increase in the size of the marshlands due to reduced irrigation and degraded flood control, the residents fled to higher ground. When the Arab (Islamic) Empire stabilized, the rulers did not know how to cultivate the land and dams were neglected. This further increased the area of flooded land. During the Umayyad Caliphate, only part of this area was cultivated.

In the following centuries, the area of the marshes fluctuated according to the intensity of the floods of the two rivers and the ability of the rulers of Iraq to control the river water. Different sources estimate the wetlands area ranged between 26,000 and 90,000 square kilometres.[3] The state and area of the marshes remained unchanged during the Ottoman Empire because the Ottomans neglected agricultural and drainage works. The Ottomans were also weak in their administration, controlling only the main cities in the marshlands.

[1] Aqrawi, A.A.M. (1993). Implication of sea-level fluctuation, sedimentation and neotectonics for the evolution of the marshlands (Ahwar) of southern Mesopotamia. Quaternary Proceeding No. 3: 17-26.
[2] New Eden Group (2006). New Eden Master Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Marshlands Area. Final report prepared for Iraq’s Ministries of Water Resources, Municipalities and Public Works, and Environment.
[3] Ibid.