Iraq redux: Goodbye Mesopotamia

Diverted any rivers lately? Me neither. The average person rarely has the opportunity. But dictators like, say, Saddam Hussein, do, and darned if they don’t take advantage. After the Gulf War, Hussein—no doubt rubbing his hands together and laughing maniacally—demanded that the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers be diverted from the Iraq marshlands, a vast and ancient system of wetlands and waterways in Southern Iraq. This wildly successful undertaking brought about the almost complete destruction of the lush ecosystem formerly known as Mesopotamia, turning it into a bone-dry desert in less than ten years.

There you go—some of us write our little blog while others are destroying a cradle of civilization.

Why? Well, also in contrast to you and me, evil dictators don’t have to explain themselves, but the move was primarily a part of a massive and brutal effort to crush the spontaneous uprising against him in the Shia-dominated south after the Gulf War. Hussein also saw it as an opportunity to continue to root out and relocate the pesky Marsh Arabs, the primitive agrarian people who I guess wore out their welcome after inhabiting the fecund marshlands for thousands of years. (The distanced and ironic tone I’m taking here could be unintentionally offensive, and my attempt to be succinct oversimplifies a complex and horribly brutal situation in which thousands of people were murdered and displaced. The real deal, a report by Iraqui environmentalist Hamid K. Ahmed is here. Read the whole page, and you’ll be—compared to most people—an expert on the topic.)

We shouldn’t blame it all on poor Hussein. The dams and channels that drained the marshes had been planned decades ago, just like the destruction of the Aral Sea by the former Soviet Union. Like the Soviets, the Iraquis had a lot on their plate and finally got around to it. Turkey, Iran, and Syria have done their part by damming upstream, reducing the rivers’ flow before it reaches Iraq.

As with the Aral Sea, there are efforts to reclaim the marshlands, and optimists see some cause for hope. I don’t. It’s absurd to think that a delicately balanced system thousands and thousands of years in the making can be saved after such devastation. And, as this site states, unprecedented regional cooperation is necessary. Prior to the occupation and the resulting destabilization of the region, such collective effort would have been unlikely—now it seems a fantasy.


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