In Iraq, there’s hope of restoring the Garden of Eden

  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 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.

Susan Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes books and essays in Salida, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...