THIRTY years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, the southern marshes in Iraq (伊拉克) are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib al-Jurani, who returned for a visit after moving to the United States in 1990.
“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like – they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
The lush marshes were declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth Unesco World Heritage site.
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it that they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opponents to the dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991, draining 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.
In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries – Turkey (土耳其) and Iran (伊朗) – shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometres to less than half that.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, compared to just 27 percent last year. That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said a farmer who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.
Wildlife including the vulnerable smoothcoated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles and Basra reed warbler has returned to the marshlands. All this, in turn, has led to ecotourism being revived with domestic and foreign visitors.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around US$25 (HK$196) – not a cheap fare for Iraq. Then, lunch in a mudhif, or guesthouse, also run by locals.
Nature Iraq, an environmental activist group, has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.
(This article is published on the Student Standard on 31 May 2019)