Forgotten people: The Marsh Arabs of Iraq

In Southern Iraq, near where the Tigris and Euphrates River join - the traditional recognized site of the Garden of Eden - live the Marsh Arabs or Ma'dan. Fifteen years ago, 250,000 Marsh Arabs lived on 20,000 square kilometers of waterways and marsh, an area as large as New Jersey. Today only 40,000 remain. The Marsh Arabs have been forced from their homes; their economy and their environment devastated by the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Why are the Marsh Arabs Forgotten?

The destruction of the Marsh Arabs illustrates the ability of a totalitarian regime to cover up the brutal repression of the people under its rule. The international community and the media had little access to the people of Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule, especially to those Iraqis who lived in remote parts of the country. The flight of the Marsh Arabs from their land in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and the draining of the marshes in which they lived was noted, but there was a lack of political will by the international community to respond. More than 40,000 of the Marsh Arabs fled as refugees to Iran, but the Iranian government also limited access to them by international organizations and the media.

Thus, only in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein is the plight of the Marsh Arabs garnering international interest. Their dilemma is complex. Perhaps they could now return home safely to their former homes, but much of the watery environment in which they lived for millennia has been destroyed, perhaps irreversibly.

The People and the Land

North and west of the city of Basra, along both banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are the Iraqi marshlands, the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East. The marshlands are the habitat for many species of waterfowl and other wildlife. The earliest civilizations known to mankind grew up near the marshes. This area probably saw the first successful efforts in the world to use irrigation to grow crops and the oldest known city in the world, Ur, was at the edge of the marshes, near the present city of Nasariyah.

The history of the present inhabitants of the marshes goes back thousands of years. In the swamps created by the overflow from the two great rivers, the Marsh Arabs traveled by boat, built imposing reed houses and mosques, and fished, raised water buffalo, and grew rice and dates for a livelihood. The Marsh Arabs' unique culture harnessed the rich environment and predates the migration of desert- and oasis-dwelling Arabs.

Anatomy of the Crisis

The draining of the marshlands in the southern Iraq coincided with Saddam Hussein's attacks on the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. In both incidences, the aims were the same - the deliberate and systematic removal of regime resistance. The Marsh Arabs were punished for their lack of support of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and brutally so. Not only was their environment decimated, which created food shortages and health crises, but the population was also subjected to deadly chemical attacks.

By 1993, the government had completed canals to divert much of the water in both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and to prevent it from seeping into the marshlands. The ostensible reason for the drainage project was to create new agricultural land, but salinization destroyed the usefulness of the land. At the same time, according to a Human Rights Watch report, the Iraqi government was bombarding villages and arresting, torturing, and executing Marsh Arabs. The great majority of people living in the marshlands had no choice but to leave their land. Tens of thousands of them sought safety in other regions of Iraq, but more than 40,000 crossed the border into Iran. They are still there, living in several refugee camps.

The fall of Saddam Hussein does not mean that the problems of the Marsh Arabs are at an end. Whether those who are displaced in Iraq or those who sought refuge in Iran will be able to go home is still an open question. They have been victims of severe repression and the deliberate destruction of their environment. Whether the marshes of southern Iraq can be restored is unknown. According to the latest fact sheet on humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Iraq issued by the U.S. Agency for International Development (Fact Sheet # 47, June 9, 2003), "new satellite imagery reveals modest signs of recovery in the marshlands" due to the opening of floodgates and heavy rain. Factors which might hinder their restoration include the presence of large deposits of petroleum under what a few years ago was a maze of waterways, a refuge for countless species of wildlife, and the home of an ancient and enduring culture.

Humanitarian Conditions

The conditions of Marsh Arabs displaced within Iraq during the 1990s are unknown. The Brookings Institution-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement estimates that 100,000 Marsh Arabs are displaced inside Iraq. Most are believed to have taken up residence among the urban population of southern Iraq. Some Marsh Arabs may have been part of the people being sent north to Kurdish areas as part of Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign, but the Brookings-SAIS report in internal displacement in Iraq does not attempt to estimate the numbers.

About 45,000 Marsh Arabs in Iran live in refugee camps managed by the government of Iran. An international NGO, Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (AMAR), helps in the camps by providing health care and emergency supplies. The largest contributors to AMAR have been the aid agencies of the government of the United Kingdom and the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO). The United States, through the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) of the Department of State also contributes to AMAR.


As a people, the Marsh Arabs are probably doomed if their ecosystem cannot be restored. About 90 percent of the swamps in which they lived have been drained. Thus, the alternatives are for them to adapt to a new environment or for their old environment to be restored to them. The second alternative, if feasible, is more desirable as the ecosystem of the Iraqi marshlands was rich and irreplaceable.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

  • Leadership in Iraq should recover the country's rich agricultural heritage by restoring the marshlands through careful and thorough study of dam removal and by ensuring an adequate flow of water for the marshlands from existing dams. A mixed economy should be developed so that Iraq has the agricultural capacity to help feed its population and is not dependent on oil exports for food.

  • A regional river utilization strategy be developed to ensure a steady supply of water to Iraq.

  • Continued financial and political support must be provided to the USAID and AMAR feasibility study regarding the restoration of the marshlands. This presence in the region will help promote coordinated and long-term development projects.

  • The government of Iran should permit greater access to the refugee camps by aid agencies and non-governmental organizations to help the Marsh Arabs.

Larry Thompson is Director of Advocacy for Refugees International. He can be contacted at

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