RESEARCH/From marsh to desert and back—if…

The marshes that support Arab farmers and fishermen

The marshes that support Arab farmers and fishermen like the one shown here were drained by the Hussein regime. Two Penn professors hope to restore them.

Photo courtesy AMAR International Charitable Foundation

Where exactly was the biblical Garden of Eden? Some scholars think it was in the fertile wetlands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet in southeastern Iraq. For thousands of years, the area was home to people known as the marsh Arabs, who made their living fishing, growing rice and tending water buffalo.

Today, that way of life has all but disappeared. The water was drained to create large agricultural tracts controlled by cronies of Saddam Hussein. The marsh Arabs were killed or driven into refugee camps for daring to rise up against the government after the Gulf War. But the fall of Hussein doesn’t end the threat.

In Turkey, where the two rivers rise, the government has embarked on a huge hydro-agricultural project, which will significantly reduce the flow of both rivers. And oil has been discovered under the marshlands.

Can anything be done to save this unique ecosystem? Professor Robert Giegengack, chair of Earth and Environmental Science, and Thomas Naff, emeritus professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, say it is not too late. “You can build a marshland from scratch if you have the resources and the time,” said Giegengack, “but it is vastly more expensive than if you re-flood it in time for the local vegetation to reseed.”

The best chance would be with one of the two marshes that are left—Al Huwaiza. “It would take lots of money—tens of millions of dollars and it would take time,” said Naff. “If they get at it right away, they can do it.”

Giegengack, Naff and other colleagues have created the University of Pennsylvania Iraq Consortium. “We are proposing to go in and do the essential ecological, epidemiological, and public health road work for providing sufficient quantity and quality of water to the Iraqi people,” said Naff, who has been studying the marshland for over 20 years. Their proposal states, “Iraq’s water system will be at the heart of any reconstruction program—food supply, public health, urban and rural demographic migratory issues (including refugees), the speed and success of economic development and oil production that cannot be carried out without the significant quantities of water.”

“In the Middle East, water and oil do mix,” says Naff. “It takes a lot of water to produce one barrel of oil. Most of it will not be fresh, but in certain stages and for certain procedures fresh water is essential.”

Their proposal has gone to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have contacted them for the data they have. “You have to see what is happening, analyze it, make recommendations and do the kind of modeling that is essential,” says Naff. “What they haven’t done—and what is needed—what we are proposing to do is the basic groundwork.”

Originally published on May 15, 2003