Saddam's Regime Dried Up the Famous Arab Marshes

The Disappearance of Famous Marsh


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Saddam Hussein, who accused the region’s Marsh Arab inhabitants of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran, dammed and drained the marshes in the 1990s to flush out rebels hiding in the reeds.

"Try to imagine how life would change if your water supply suddenly vanished.That’s what happened to the Ma’dan people of southern Iraq—the Marsh Arabs—when the water started to disappear from the Mesopotamian marshes, or 'the land between the rivers', where they had lived for more than 2,000 years."


When All the Lands Were Sea: A Photographic Journey Into the Lives of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq
Marshes area of substantial drying due to water diversion by Saddam Husein

Saddam Set Out to Destroy Marshes


The marshes became a sanctuary for Saddam’s opponents, for military deserters during his war with Iran in the 1980s, and for thousands of Shias who rose against him after the 1991 Gulf War.

Saddam responded with characteristic brutality. He set out to destroy the marshes, using a plan devised by the British in the 1950s to convert them to agricultural use. He built dams and levees to stop water reaching them. He dug great channels – the Prosperity River, the Mother of Battles Canal, the Loyalty to the Leader Channel – to drain them.

A mashuf – traditional wooden canoes with tarred hulls
Saddam's dams diverted waters away from the marshes

Before The Marsh was Destroyed


The undisturbed life of the Marsh Arabs—who for centuries lived in isolation from outside pressure—was lost.

The pictures offer a glimpse into this culture before it was destroyed, when the water nearly vanished. The Marsh Arabs relied on floods every winter and spring as the two rivers overflowed with rain and melting snow brought down from their Turkish headwaters. According to Middle East Watch, Saddam’s engineers diverted almost the entire flow of the Euphrates into a large drainage canal, known as the Third River, which has recently been connected to the sea.

When All the Lands Were Sea: A Photographic Journey Into the Lives of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq