Marshes No More

Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Mesopotamia Swamp before
Curtis J. Richardson/Duke University Wetland Center

The Mesopotamian marshlands have supported people and wildlife for thousands of years, but it took only a few years to all but erase them from the map. During the Gulf War of 1991, Iraqi troops poisoned the marshes, diverted the water supply and burned vegetation. By 2000, only 10 percent of the original marshes remained and most of the half-million Ma'dan had relocated. Animals and plants fared no better. With no place for fish to spawn, local fisheries crashed. Water birds lost their food supply, habitats and resting places.

Water Treatment

The Mesopotamian marshes cleaned the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, filtering out pollutants carried from towns and farms upriver. When the marshes were destroyed, polluted water poured into the Persian Gulf and degraded the coastline, wreaking havoc on marine life and the lucrative shrimp industry.

A Land Lost

The Mesopotamian marshes were once enormous, covering almost 20,000 square kilometers (7,720 square miles) in 1973. By 2000, however, only about 10 percent, or 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles), remained. This depletion of the marshes put at least 66 of the 278 bird species in the region at risk of extinction.