Marsh loss shatters lifestyle of Iraq’s Ma’dan women

Marsh arabs.jpg
Copyright: Georg Gerster / Panos

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  • Local women are essential to marshland management in Iraq
  • Land desiccation is destroying traditional lifestyles and depleting water resources
  • But government is out of funds to fix the problem

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Iraq is losing crucial knowledge about water management as marshland depletion is altering the lifestyle of local women, a paper has warned.

The indigenous people of the Hammar Marshes, called Ma’dan, hold a treasure trove of traditional knowledge and skills that help with water management, medicine and sustainable farming, a study found. In Ma’dan tradition, women are the preservers of such knowledge and take an active role in trade, reed collection and animal husbandry.


However, the depletion of the marshes through desiccation has drastically changed their lifestyle, researchers say. While none of the women interviewed for the study reported being primarily domestic before marshland desiccation, about 60 per cent of younger women are exclusively housewives, says Nadia Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, the author of the study.

“We don’t have enough studies linking the environment to the socio-economic issue, with very limited studies on the desiccation impact on the community and women in particular,” says Fawzi, a researcher at the Marine Science Centre at the University of Basrah in Iraq.

Up to 90 per cent of the Hammar Marshes have been heavily damaged by draining, which began in the 1970s. As a result, the population of the region dropped from 500,000 in the 1950s to 20,000 by 2003, says the paper, which was published last month in Ecosystem Health and Sustainability.  

The resulting lack of marsh management through Ma’dar women has exacerbated water shortages in the region, Al-Mudaffar’s study found. The remaining water supply and quality are adversely affected by dam construction, climate change, salt water intrusions, waste from the oil industry and over-irrigation, the study warns.

“It is substantial to maintain sufficient water in the marshes, especially since most of the water goes to agriculture,” says Ali Al-Lami, the former deputy environment minister of Iraq. “But providing stable water resources is almost impossible now due to hard conditions for finance and water resources.”

The changing lifestyle for women also means that important knowledge about local traditional medicines could be lost, says Al-Mudaffar’s study. The paper states that some of  the damage to the marshes could be reversed, and that ecotourism could be developed to support the Ma’dar communities.

“I’d say that it is rare to find similar studies in Iraq, and I’m confident that it will help confirm the marsh community’s need for support, especially for the women,” says Lami.

But Mahdi Thamad Al-Qaisi, Iraq’s deputy minister of agriculture, says funding for such efforts must come from private companies or international bodies, as the Iraqi government is “experiencing financial hardship”.

Extra reporting by Adel Fakhir in Baghdad.