Iraq’s Dying Rivers
Al Jazeera (2019)
This documentary is about the environmental degradation of the Middle East’s most famous rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The intersection of the two rivers, referred to as the Fertile Crescent, is celebrated as the birthplace of the agricultural revolution and the first human settlements.
The two rivers join in southern Iraq to form the Shatt-al-Arab, which empties into the Arabian Sea. The marshes along the Shatt were previously home to 200,000 “Marsh Arabs,” who worked as fishermen until Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1950s. He reportedly did so to punish them for criticizing his regime.
The marshes were re-flooded in 2003, following the fall of Saddam. According to the UN, the wetlands habitat has only partially recovered (37%). This relates in part to dams on the upper Euphrates in Turkey and Syria. The latter have cut water levels in the Iraq segment of the Euphrates (making it more saline) by 50%. The river is also contaminated by industrial waste, agricultural runoff, human sewage, old rusting fishing vessels and the environmental damage resulting from nearly 30 years of US bombing campaigns (starting with the first US invasion in 1992).
Only 5,000 fisherman remain and all struggle to sustain their livelihood. In addition to declining fish stocks, they also face repeated harassment by the Iranian and Kuwaiti coast guard. The harassment stems from unresolved disputes between Iraq, Iran and Kuwait over their sea borders.
Fish stocks are also significantly reduced in the Tigris, which flows through Iraq’s capital city. While Baghdad fishermen are repeatedly hassled by Iraqi security forces, the Tigris is less contaminated and even serves as a source of drinking water.
At present, Iraq must import 60% of their fish, an important Iraqi dietary staple.