"Cradle of Civilization" in Peril

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April 21, 2009—Iraq's southern marshes were largely restored after Saddam Hussein drained them following the 1991 Gulf War. But now a drought threatens the ancient wetlands' recovery. Video.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

Iraq's southern marshes are considered by many as the cradle of Western civilization.

This land in the Hor al-Hammar marsh near Nasiriyah was drained by Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War to punish the people who depended on it for survival. The marshes were coming back to life a few years ago. But drought threatens the marshes once again, and the area's inhabitants, known as Marsh Arabs, are suffering.

SOUNDBITE (Arabic) Yasser Razaq, Marsh resident ''Our conditions have deteriorated more. I have bought this canoe which you see it now on dried marsh. We asked our schoolchildren to leave schools, because we couldn't afford their expenses and buy them clothes. We don't have money or livestock. Now we don't have fish to sell or farms to cultivate. Our standard of living is deteriorated."

The Marsh Arab culture has existed for more than 5,000 years in the wetlands fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Periodic flooding created fertile farm lands. But the mostly Shiite Muslim Arabs rose up against Saddam Husseins regime after the 1991 Gulf War. To punish them, Saddam built a massive network of dams and earthen walls to divert water and dry the marshes. The marshes shrank by 90 percent.

After the US-led invasion in 2003, projects to revive the marshlands were launched, and the marshlands once again began to flood.

But the restoration programs depend on the Tigris and the Euphrates, and drought has caused the levels of those two rivers to fall.

SOUNDBITE (Arabic) Hussein Ali, Marsh resident ''When Saddam Hussein was in power the marshes were drained. We left for Najaf province. And when Saddam was toppled and water came to the marshes, we came back. Then the marshes were drained again (by the drought). What shall we do? The marshes are dry once again."

Overall, low rainfall over the last few years has dropped water levels in most places to less than a foot, when it should be at 4 feet or more. Even with the drought, the outlook for the marshes is better than a decade ago. But that means little to many of the Marsh Arabs.

SOUNDBITE (Arabic) Um Talib, Marsh resident ''Our life is too bad and miserable. We have only some buffaloes. We don't have a salary. We have nothing."

Last month, the United Nations and the Iraqi government announced a new program to restore the marshes, but the program's Iraq director expressed doubt that the marshes can be fully restored without a break in the drought.

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