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Climate Change Is Killing Off a 5,000-Year-Old Iraqi Culture

The ancient Ma’dan culture is disappearing as the Fertile Crescent dries up, but it’s the women who are bearing the brunt of this change.
A Marsh Arab girl from the village of Al Kuthra, Iraq; Image via Wikimedia Commons

As our species finds itself staring down the barrel at widespread environmental collapse due to climate change, some of us have more to worry about than others. In particular, the Middle East and surrounding regions have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to climate change effects, especially those having to do with water: Within the last seven years the region has lost enough water to fill the Dead Sea and by 2040, 14 of the 33 most water stressed countries on Earth will be in the Middle East. Although Middle Eastern countries will be some of the hardest hit by climate change, there is a marginalized community within their borders which will be affected by climate change still more than others: Women.


There has been extensive research conducted which examines the intersection of gender and climate change, and the bulk of this research has found that women are being disproportionately affected by climate change, particularly in those countries where they have fewer rights. These observations were most recently bolstered in a new study led by Nadia Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, a marine ecologist at Iraq's University of Basrah, who found that a 5,000 year old Iraqi culture was disappearing as a direct result of climate change and that this culture's women were bearing the brunt of this climate-induced fallout.

As detailed in the study published last week in Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, the ancient Arab Marsh (Ma'dan) culture, which has thrived in the Mesopotamian Marshes of Southern Iraq for thousands of years, is disappearing as the marshes are drying up. Located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, these marshes are undergoing a process of desertification as a result of climate change, with the natural resources the Ma'dan people depend on—such as the reeds used to make their iconic mudhif houses—vanishing along with the water.

"The Marsh Arabs used to live in the middle of the water, surrounded by everything green," said Fawzi in a press release. "The fields, the reeds, and the water buffalo were around them. Now they have to walk five, ten kilometers to reach resources. The land is dry and brown."


After studying in New Zealand, Fawzi moved back to Iraq in 2009 to teach at the University of Basrah. According to her, even then it was clear that the Mesopotamian marshes were drying up. Although she is a marine ecologist by training, Fawzi found herself becoming increasingly interested in the social instability that this desertification of the marshes had engendered. In particular, she found that Ma'dan women were particularly affected by the changes in their environment, as the disappearance of resources severely limited their ability to engage in their traditional roles.

"The whole situation in the marshes is completely different from what I saw before, in the '70s and early '80s," Fawzi said. "Women used to play a role in the ecological system. They used to work with men in gathering reeds and in fishing, and we would see them in the market when they come and sell their produce, like the fish, and the milk from the buffalo, the cheese and the yogurt that they make."

By designing a formal survey with her colleagues, Fawzi found that the disappearance of the marshes meant Ma'dan women were spending more time at home, engaged in domestic tasks when before they would have been working outside. Although men and women have different roles within Ma'dan society, traditional female work involved everything from caring for water buffalo and gathering reeds to cultivating rice and bringing handicrafts to sell in city markets.


The disappearance of fresh water, reeds, and other natural resources not only severely limits the role of women with the Ma'dan society, but Fawzi found that the Ma'dan women were not passing traditional knowledge on to younger generations within the culture. In short, Ma'dan cultural knowledge was drying up in tandem with the marshes.

Fawzi's results are based on a series of 34 interviews she and her colleagues conducted with Ma'dan women who ranged in age from teenagers to well over 70 years old. This gave the team a unique, cross generational perspective on the changing landscape.

Over half of the survey respondents were over 50 and as such could remember the days before droughts and wars began to wreak havoc on the Iraqi marshes. The first shock to the region came during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. The Ma'dan people found themselves on the front lines of this conflict and many fled the region during this time. Those who remained saw Saddam Hussein intentionally drain the marshes in the 1990s, partly to facilitate oil discovery and partly in retaliation against those who had led uprisings against his governments (the marshes have long been a refuge for Iraqi dissidents).

A Ma'dan village at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hussein's policies in the area nearly drained the marshes completely, but after he was deposed during the second Iraq war, the marshes saw a brief recovery period which ended with the severe drought of 2007. Despite the apparent resiliency of the region's ecosystem, Fawzi and her colleagues fear that the marshes may be approaching a point of no return, a problem which will only be exacerbated because the younger Ma'dan generations lack the skills that allowed the older generations to thrive in this singular ecosystem.

According to Fawzi, any hope for the region likely lies in diplomatic solutions. So far, however, these have been slow in coming—in a country devastated by decades of war, environmental policy ranks pretty low on the list of pressing national priorities (indeed, Iraq did not have environmental policy prior to 2003).

In the first place, there will need to be programs that guarantee the region gets sufficient water—the Tigris and Euphrates water levels have dropped to 20 percent of the pre-war volume, and much of the water that still flows in the rivers is too salty to drink. Fawzi cites restoration practices being used in Iraq's first national park—Mesopotamia Marshlands—as a potential template for other regions in the marshes. The problem remains figuring out a way to supply the water needed for these restoration practices.

On the social side of things, Fawzi and her colleagues advocate for programs which foster the traditional skills of the Ma'dan people as well as a market for their handicrafts.

"Much of the land near Basrah city is desertified [and] it was extremely sobering sometimes to see the circumstances some people are living in," said study co-author Kelly Goodwin, who works with Millennium Relief and Development Services. "I really consider it was a privilege to sit with these women, drink tea, and hear their stories. I would have loved to have tangible solutions to take back to them that could encourage the retention of cultural traditions and secure ecological restoration. I think they feel they are forgotten and overlooked. I wish I could tell them that they are not forgotten."