BASRA, Iraq — Jassim al-Asadi was born 56 years ago in a boat at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Back then, vast wetlands covered one-fifth of Iraq, sustaining a unique culture of marsh-dwelling Arabs that fish the waters and live among the reeds.
Al-Asadi remembers ferrying himself on his own boat every day to school — a reed platform in the middle of the marshes — during the flood season.
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But now those marshes — drained by Saddam Hussein to punish the armed Shia rebels taking cover there during the 1990s uprising — are again under threat, putting the livelihood of the already dwindling Marsh Arab population into serious jeopardy.
Upstream from Iraq along the Tigris and Euphrates, Turkey is planning to build a series of dams that will cut their own energy costs, but also sap the ancient rivers that feed the marshes, diluting them with salty water from the nearby Persian Gulf.
The largest hydroelectric dam Turkey will build on the Tigris, the Ilısu Dam, will be finished by mid-2014, project managers say. At a capacity of 11 billion cubic meters (bcm), Ilısu will make up 2 percent of Turkey’s total power generation and save the government $400 million in energy bills each year.
It will also irrigate 1.5 million hectares of land in southeastern Turkey, close to the Iraqi border.
But roughly 600 miles downstream, the dam could more than halve the amount of water Iraq receives from the Tigris River, parching 670,000 hectares of arable land, dehydrating the marsh, and sparking local water conflicts, Iraqi experts say.
This is in addition to the political and sectarian violence already plaguing Iraq, where hundreds have died in recent weeks in some of the worst unrest in years, but that has not yet directly affected the marsh-area communities.
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“There won’t be any marsh in Iraq” if Turkey follows through, said al-Asadi, who now works for the environmental non-profit Nature Iraq.
According to him, Turkey’s current dams have reduced to less than a quarter the amount of water needed for the people of the marsh area to revive the drained and damaged wetlands and raise their crops.
Under the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a multi-sector regional development initiative, Turkey aims to build 19 hydro plants and 22 more dams on the two crucial rivers.
“Downstream countries have a lot of concerns — and some of them are right,” said Ahmed Saatci, director of Turkey’s state water authority. And “some of them are totally irrelevant. We have built dams before… and they didn’t suffer during the construction of those,” he said.
Both rivers — which originate in Turkey, pass through Syria, and meet in southern Iraq — have sustained the inhabitants of the area, then known as Mesopotamia, since at least 6,000 BC.
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Then, as now, the residents of the marshes used reeds to build their homes. They hunted, fished, and kept water buffalo for sustenance, in a lifestyle very familiar to contemporary marsh-dwelling Arabs, of which there are now approximately 35,000 left in Iraq’s marshes.
Even before the potential devastation from the dams, the marshes now cover about half the area they did before Hussein targeted them for destruction — and much of the community has already fled, both elsewhere in Iraq and to Iran.
Like the majority of the population in southern Iraq, the Marsh Arabs are predominantly Shia Muslims, persecuted brutally under the former dictator’s regime. When Shi’ite rebels rose up following the first Gulf War, in some cases using the marshland for cover, Hussein drained the area to flush them out.
At the time, roughly 75,000 Marsh Arabs fled the area in the 1990s, many heading to refugee camps in neighboring Iran.
Now, salinity is up, water levels are down, and the Marsh Arabs are clashing frequently with their land-dwelling neighbors.
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Mehdi al-Tahab and his family returned to the Hammar Marsh — south of the Euphrates and, like many of the marshes, drained completely under Hussein — in 2005, when they heard that life was returning to the area.
But the water was not as they remember it. Lower river levels — a result of the upstream dams that have already been built — had allowed salty water from the Persian Gulf to creep upstream and increase the marsh waters’ salinity.
The salinity went from a standard level of 200 parts per million (ppm) to, in some cases, more than 4,000 ppm now.
This is four times the level generally considered potable, and twice the level that most plants can tolerate.
The salinity of the water “is affecting the buffalo, agriculture, and humans,” al-Tahab said from his hut in the Hammar Marsh. The energy levels of the buffalo drop and their eyesight suffers from the salty water, he said.
As a result of the salinity, the Marsh Arabs find themselves forced to haul by boat drinking water from treatment facilities in city centers back to their homes in the marsh, sometimes traveling 5-10 miles from home for treated water.
In addition, the water scarcity has led to an uptick in violent conflict.
“Most of the tribal conflicts that happen here in our area are due to the shortage of water,” said Sheikh Sayid Abbas, who lives in the Maysan province along the Tigris River in the country’s south. “At the beginning of this season, the water levels were even lower, leading to conflicts and even many murders.”
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Some of the violence takes place when the Marsh Arabs migrate out of the drying marshlands to wetter areas closer to the rivers. They end up clashing with farmers who already live there, because they are unfamiliar with traditional land-use policies in agricultural communities outside the marsh.
“They [the Marsh Arabs] just go and take over lands, destroy fences and destroy plants,” said a professor of Marine Science at the University of Basrah, Nadia al Mudaffar Fawzi. “So this creates conflict between the moved Marsh Arabs and the original farmers.”
Indeed, the migration has been hard for the Marsh Arabs, used to relying on the marsh for their needs — using reeds for shelter, the water for drinking and bathing, and marsh wildlife like birds, fish and buffalo for food.
Without these resources, unused to the lifestyle and traditions of land-bound Iraqis, they are adrift in a strange land.
The families that have already emigrated from the marshes “are really, really suffering,” Fawzi said.
The Ilısu Dam will likely exacerbate their plight further by significantly diminishing water flow to the wetlands, forcing the remaining Marsh Arabs to migrate to dry land, experts say.
The only hope for the Marsh Arabs lies in negotiations with Turkey, al-Asadi says.
“We have fuel and they have water. We must sit with them and put everything the right way,” he said.