Yesterday, I flew from Baghdad to Basrah, Iraq. One of my favorite things when flying during the day is looking out the window at the landscape below. Landscapes and weather determine how people interact with their environment, including means of livlihood and subsistence, particularly in poorer countries. You can only work with what you have.

For a large part of the flight, we followed the Tigris River as it made its way south to meet the Euphrates north of Basrah and form the Shatt-al-Arab that flows into the Persian Gulf. The first thing that struck me was the meandering nature of the river as it flowed out of Baghdad. Oxbow lakes and developing oxbow lakes were plentiful. It looked like a wide, lazy river, as makes sense so far from its source in Turkey. Many canals running off the river irrigate farmland via vast networks, some in better repair than others. Canal maintenance is a time and labor consuming process.

Tigris River flowing south from Baghdad

Tigris River flowing south from Baghdad

Farmland and canals near Baghdad, most of what look like roads are actually canals

Farmland and canals near Baghdad, most of what look like roads are actually canals

The views became more interesting as we got further south into the marsh areas. I will write about the Marsh Arabs more in another post, but the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers formed vast marshes as they began to form their delta with the Persian Gulf. North of Basrah and spreading east, as well as west into Iran, as recently as the 1990s, these marshes were huge and home to as many as 500,000 Marsh Arabs. These people farmed rice and raised water buffalo, among other things, and lived on man-made and natural islands in the marshes and moved about by boat. They even used water buffalo to keep channels open and use for work animals.

In the 1990s, after the First Gulf War, the Marsh Arabs and other Shite tribes revolted against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. As with the Kurds in the north, the Marsh Arabs were brutalized and the marshes drained, to remove the hiding places and punish them. Most fled to Iran and elsewhere in Iraq. The marshes were largely gone, not only a human catastrophe, but an environmental one, as well, as an entire ecosystem was destroyed.

Marsh Map

Marsh Map

Since Saddam Hussein’s downfall, the marshes have been allowed to gradually return. Nowhere as big as they once were, marshes have come back in some places, where in others one still sees only the completely barren sand of what were once areas covered by water. The above map of 2000 was possibly the lowest marsh level of all time, things look better than that now, but not near the 1973 levels.

Part of the region as it looks in 2012

Part of the region as it looks in 2012, some marshes have returned

I did see the marshes, as well as vast barren areas that you could tell were once water, with dry streams and river beds still visible. I even saw what had to be rice patties and lots of small “islands” in some areas of water. Who would have ever thought that rice would be grown in Iraq, a place I know mainly for its deserts and incredible heat, as high as +130 degrees F in summer. Yet, Arabs eat a lot of rice, so it stands to reason that they once were big cultavators of this crop in this region.

Dry marsh wasteland remains in 2012

Dry marsh wasteland remains in 2012


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