Until a decade ago, southern Iraq boasted one of the world’s largest wetlands, the Mesopotamia Marshes, almost 7,800 square miles of vibrant pond, canal, and reed-thicket, a watery oasis the size of Massachusetts. Biblical scholars claim that the vast area of wetland fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was the real-life Garden of Eden.
If so, humans were only recently expelled from this marsh paradise: Until the 1990s, the expanse of 6- to 12-foot tall giant reed was home to some 300,000 indigenous Ma’dan people, a culture that traces its origins five millennia back to the Sumerians, inventors of the world’s first alphabet.
The rich mix of open water and marsh nurtured an astonishing diversity of life including lions, wild boar, gray wolves, goitered gazelle, honey badgers, hyenas, jackals, red foxes, and Indian crested porcupine; plus smaller mammals, birds, fish, insects, and aquatic invertebrates. In migration, a flood tide of water birds, cranes, sacred ibises, geese, ducks, and sandpipers inundated the sea of cattail and reed.
This isolated oasis evolved unique lives as well: the smooth-covered otter, bandicoot rat, the thrasher-like Iraqi babbler, and the buni fish are found nowhere else, along with the Ma’dan, living in reed houses on floating islands.
The Mesopotamia Marshes acted like a giant and very efficient water-treatment system, absorbing the Tigris and Euphrates drainages with their loads of fertilizer salts from farms as far away as Syria and Turkey, plus sewage and industrial pollutants, and releasing clean water enriched by the marsh to the Gulf. Nutrients from the wetlands spawned a thriving Gulf fishery; that fishery fed the people of southern Iraq and Kuwait.
The story of these once-lush wetlands is written in the past tense: after the 1991 Gulf War, when thousands of Shi’ite rebels took refuge in the reed-thickets, Saddam Hussein spent vast amounts of money to drain the marshes and expose their hiding places.
Today, 95 percent of the great marsh is gone; the soil surface ranges from fetid mud sprinkled with garbage and land mines to dust-dry desert. Without the buffering effect of the marsh, the groundwater is being polluted by salt creeping up from the sea and human-created wastes flowing downstream.
The Gulf fishery has crashed; millions of migrating birds find no green respite; the smooth-covered otter and bandicoot rat may be extinct; the Ma’dan and the Shi’ite rebels fled to refugee camps in Iran.
The tale of the Mesopotamia Marshes echoes the story of the Colorado River Delta, once a similarly Eden-like wetland in the midst of the North American desert where the Colorado River emptied into the Sea of Cortez.
By the 1970s, the 3,000-square-mile oasis of the Colorado River Delta had returned to desert, the river flow siphoned off to irrigate lettuce fields and fill swimming pools, and the delta-building sediment sieved out by upstream dams. One small marsh remained at the delta’s edge, kept alive by runoff from irrigated farms.
The rich diversity of the delta seemed lost: the endemic vaquita porpoise holds the dubious honor of being the world’s most endangered mammal; the unique totoaba fish, which grew to seven feet long and 300 pounds in the rich estuary, is rare; the flood-agriculture and fishing culture of the native Cocopah people is nearly forgotten.
Efforts are underway to revive the Colorado River Delta, a politically complicated but biologically straightforward matter of re-establishing river flows and seasonal flooding. There is hope for the Mesopotamia Marshes, too: Scientists and environmental organizations around the world have begun planning to restore part of the wetland once Iraq is stabilized.
Marshes boast some of the highest levels of biological diversity on Earth. In an ironic echo of the biblical tale of Eden, our relationship with these fecund ecosystems is warped: it seems that we must ruin them to understand what we have lost.
I dream that someday my husband Richard and I will be able to guide a kayak through the shallow channels of desert wetlands like the Colorado River Delta and Mesopotamia Marshes, watery havens that bless us with the voices and stories of a cacophony of lives, wild and human. Whether or not we can return to the Garden of Eden, we can surely work to restore the vibrant marshscapes that gave birth to that metaphor of paradise on Earth.