Protecting the Iraqi marshes

Dr. Michelle Stevens

Photo By william leung

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For the past seven years, Sacramento State University professor Dr. Michelle Stevens has helmed Hima Mesopotamia, a nongovernmental organization of more than 50 scientists and environmentalists attempting to protect and rehabilitate the Mesopotamian marshes in Iraq. The longevity of the marshes depends on the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, shared between Iran, lraq, Syria and Turkey—all of which are now fighting over water access. Unlike here in California, where there is some protection of wildlife and quality of water via the California Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water Act, there is little legislative protection from man’s desire to dam the rivers in the Middle East.

Why is the preservation and restoration of the Iraqi marshes so important?

Five thousand years of inhabitation by the Marsh Arabs. It was their way of life; they lived sustainably there. [The marshes] are the wintering grounds for migratory birds. More than 1 million waterfowl and shorebirds use the area in the winter. … They are a nursery for the fish species and shrimp. … But above all, people don’t have any water to drink. They just don’t have any fresh water that’s clean and unpolluted.

What has led to the degradation of the marshes?

Saddam Hussein put in this whole drainage structure after the Iran-Iraq war. The Marsh Arabs and people in the south rose up against Saddam Hussein, so he retaliated with vigor and vengeance. That was after the Kuwait Gulf War in 1991. … He was forbidden from having airplanes, so he had helicopters, and he would firebomb the villages, drain the marshes, burn the marshes, kill the buffalo, kill the fish.

Can you describe the meaning of hima and its relation to your organization’s work?

“Hima Mesopotamia” means “protection of the land between two rivers.” Hima is an ancient Muslim tradition of caring for the commons. It’s Muslim and Jewish. It predates Christianity. … So our meaning for “Hima Mesopotamia” is protection of the whole watershed and the people and all the critters and fish and beings that live in it.

Besides scientists, who else works with you?

Environmental grassroots activists, especially in Turkey. The biggest one is Doga Dernegi, and it is a grassroots effort working for people and water in Turkey. I don’t think most Americans know how bad the situation is. They want to build 1,700 dams throughout [Turkey], and they are just going whole hog.

What are the proposed solutions to restoring that area?

You have to allocate water supply where you have it. You need to conserve water in the country, and you need to have a way of purifying enough water so people can drink and bathe. They need the minimum amount, and they need enough for the water buffalo, too. It’s part of who they are, like me and my family. I would need water for my golden retriever. I wouldn’t just let her die.

When was the last time you were in Iraq?

2008. I was in Turkey in 2010. I almost went over to Iraq, but it was too expensive to fly from where I was, and I was afraid to take a bus by myself, so I was just on the border.

What parallels can you draw between the challenges in the marshes in Iraq and those in water systems here at home?

We also have diminishing water supply. Ours is from climate change. We have a collapse of our biodiversity in the Delta from water conveyance. We have pelagic organism decline, loss of our salmonic fishery, loss of our native fishery. This was also a landscape traditionally tended by California Indian people.

You co-wrote a chapter on the Mespotamian marshes for the new book Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration. Could you tell me a bit about it?

It was really fun, and I think people will like to read it because it’s about people I interviewed, the scientists at Nature Iraq. It’s about people who work in the marshes, the Iraqis. And it’s really surprising what people say. … These people I talk to are just wonderful biologists—any of us would love to hang with them in the wetlands. They say thank you to America for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and thank you for the job and for caring. … You can see the stories of the Iraqis’ themselves, not the American right or left.

How did you originally become interested in the Iraqi marshes?

Well, I wasn’t, actually. And after I graduated, Azzam and Suzie Alwash [of the Eden Again Iraqi marsh-restoration project] put out a request for a project manager, and they had funding. So I applied, and I started working for them as the project manager of Eden Again, and I got hooked. … I don’t know. It was a trajectory started by my destiny.