Watching the chaotic aftermath of repression andwar in Iraq hurts my heart. As an antidote, I conjure a vision of hope: a shimmering expanse of water and life that may once again grace the Iraqi desert.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.