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The Plight of the Marsh Arabs, an Environmental and Human Rights Crisis

An Application of Complexity Theory

Newman, Susan Dunreath, BSN, RN, CRRN

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doi: 10.1097/01.ANS.0000300181.71724.c7
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INFORMAL CONVERSATIONS with average Americans reveal that many are familiar with the atrocities waged by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish people of mountainous Northern Iraq; however, very few people indicate that they have any knowledge of Hussein's persecution of the Marsh Arabs, or Ma'dan. Hussein's calculated destruction of the marshes of southern Iraq, the homeland of the Marsh Arabs, had an overwhelming local, as well as global, ecological impact. Not only did Hussein succeed in destroying the 5000-year-old culture of the Marsh Arabs, he also ultimately affected the climate, wildlife, and oceans of the surrounding areas.

The harmful effects of Hussein's regime have been well publicized globally. However, the plight of the Marsh Arabs has generally received little attention from the mainstream media, yet represents an enormous violation of basic human rights, as well as a massive environmental disaster resulting from deliberate human actions. Calculated actions were carried out, under the command of Hussein, with the intention of destroying the dense marsh environment of southern Iraq and, in the process, obliterating the 5000-year-old culture of the Marsh Arabs. The present disarray Iraq's infrastructure and lack of public services, especially healthcare, have added to the challenge of dealing with the extensive effects of this significant, man-made, environmental disaster on the health and well-being of the Marsh Arab population.

Public health indicators for the inhabitants of the marshes of Iraq were nonexistent during the regime of Saddam Hussein. Healthcare services for the Marsh Arabs were completely absent in the heart of the marshes. The few clinics in existence lay on the outer boundaries of the marshes requiring extensive travel time to access them. After the destruction of the marshes, ill or injured Marsh Arabs were reluctant to visit the few health clinics that existed for fear of being arrested or worse. Toward the end of Hussein's rule, he had ordered the removal of all medical equipment and supplies from these clinics, virtually eliminating healthcare for the Marsh Arabs.1

The Iraqi healthcare system, already crippled prior to the 2003 US invasion by previous years of conflict and UN sanctions, is currently on the threshold of collapse.2 In 1990, because of the emigration crisis, Saddam Hussein declared the field of nursing unnecessary and stated that Iraq would do without nurses. He later revoked this mandate, pressing agricultural school graduates, army deserters, or petty criminals into public service as “nurses.”3 Since Hussein's removal from power, the Iraq Ministry of Health, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), has formulated a 5-year National Strategy and Plan of Action for Nursing and Midwifery Development in Iraq to focus on development of nursing education and services. However, the recent conflict has essentially halted any action related to the strategic plan.4 The continuing violence in Iraq, which includes the kidnapping and murder of doctors, nurses, and other humanitarian workers, is seriously hampering any attempt to rebuild the Iraqi healthcare system.2

In 2002, the health of the Iraqi people was considerably worse than before the 1990–91 Gulf War and was being further damaged by environmental destruction, decreased access to clean water and sanitation, increasing poverty and malnutrition, disruption of public services, including healthcare, and social breakdown.5 Thousands of Iraqis are believed to have perished because of shortages of medicine, equipment, and professional care. Raging sectarian violence as well as theft, corruption, and mismanagement has exhausted health resources and hampered deliveries of essential supplies. There has been distressing reoccurrence of previously well-controlled communicable diseases, including diarrheal diseases, acute respiratory tract infections, and typhoid, particularly among children.5 There have been documented outbreaks of cholera.6 In southern Iraq, many of the outbreaks of water-borne illnesses can be attributed to the loss of the natural water filtration system of the marsh vegetation.7

The dynamic equilibrium, which occurs between both the physical and biological environments and the populations that inhabit them, is a central element of disease ecology.8 Complexity science provides a foundation that supports an appreciation of the effects that changes in land use, climate, and populations have on health. This knowledge is essential, especially in systems that are far from equilibrium and require intervention. The appearance of particular diseases needs to be viewed in the wider context of changes that are economic, political, and social, as well as environmental. Diseases cannot be reduced to a single cause; “complexity is their hallmark.”9(p2667)

The implications of restoring a 5000-year-old relatively stable, self-sustaining environment and society are daunting. Complexity science offers guidance in understanding and recognizing the importance of the connections between every element of the marsh ecosystem, from the water to the flora and fauna to the people. Any single element of the marsh system cannot be considered without contemplating its effects on the other elements of the marsh ecosystem. The measurements of water flow are equally important as the desires of the marsh inhabitants. Complexity science offers an integrated view of each of these elements and the importance of its role in a complex adaptive system such as the marshes of southern Iraq. Only by understanding these complex and often-delicate relationships can one begin to create a feasible, well-designed plan to renourish and restore the marshes of southern Iraq and facilitate restoration of the Marsh Arab culture, now that Hussein's reign of destruction has been ended.

In this article, I will examine the unique culture of the Marsh Arabs and provide a historical overview of actions taken by the regime of Saddam Hussein against the Marsh Arabs. I will also provide a brief overview of complexity science and demonstrate application of aggregate complexity as a means of understanding the southern Iraqi marsh ecosystem as a complex adaptive system. I will also consider human rights violations and the public health crisis inflicted upon the Marsh Arabs resulting from the destruction of the marshes of southern Iraq. Plans to restore the marsh ecosystem and the Marsh Arab culture will also be addressed, emphasizing the importance of using a complexity model throughout the reconstruction and restoration efforts.


Reflection back to social studies classes of elementary school sparks a memory of lessons about the ancient land of Mesopotamia, often referred to as the cradle of civilization, and the Sumerians, the people that inhabited this land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The convergence of these rivers in southern Iraq fostered the development of a lush 12 000 square miles of wetlands, enhanced by the creation of massive irrigation works by the Sumerians 5000 years ago.10 Biblical scholars consider this region as the site of the legendary “Garden of Eden.”11 The documented history of the Middle East, and the world, begins with the history of Sumer that records dwellings made of reeds and transportation by long canoes for over 5000 years.12 Archeological digs in this area reveal physical evidence of reed huts and long canoes that mirror those used by the Marsh Arabs of the present day.13 For many millennia, the southern marshes of Iraq have endured as the home of a culture, uniquely linked to its environment, known as the Marsh Arabs.

The culture of the Marsh Arabs was closely tied to the environment. A “harmoniously intertwined relationship” with the marsh environment allowed each Marsh Arab tribe to be self-sufficient and capable of withstanding the scarcity of resources from the world outside of the marshes.13 Population estimates indicate that around 400 000 Marsh Arabs inhabited this area in the 1950s. This figure dropped to approximately 250 000 by 1990 as younger generations were lured away by the promise of an easier, more lucrative life outside of the marshes.14 Typically, Marsh Arabs rarely left the marshes, making the daylong trip only when necessary to sell livestock, handwoven carpets or reed mats, or to obtain supplies from the outside world such as spices or aluminum pots and pans. Almost everything else required to sustain the Marsh Arab culture was produced by, and obtained from, the marshes.13

Large tribal villages consisted of networks of small fixed islands that had been built up through centuries of layering mud and handwoven reed mats. The islands were constructed to heights that accommodated the seasonal flooding of the rivers. Streams and rivers created an intricate network of waterways within and between villages and provided passage for the primary means of transportation, the long canoe or mashuf.13

The 20-ft high reeds, which were the primary vegetation of the marsh region, provided raw materials for building huts, boats, mats, and baskets. The dwellings of the Marsh Arabs were constructed entirely from dried, seasoned reeds. Cathedral like structures, known as mudhif, built to house tribal sheiks, were the pinnacle of Marsh Arab architectural excellence. The tallest reeds were tied into bundles and bent into arched supports for the vaulted roof of the dwelling. The walls were often intricately woven in a filigree pattern of openings to allow light and air into the mudhif interior. Villagers built smaller family dwellings using the same technique. The reed dwellings were easy to take apart and reassemble as needed when floodwaters threatened. The interiors of the dwellings were finished with reed mats and wool carpets, a fireplace for cooking and a divider, usually a bench or reed mat, to separate the sides of the hut for men and women. The backside of the dwelling functioned as a workspace or housing for the ever-present water buffalo.13

Evidence from archeological sites suggests that water buffalo were first brought to the marshes around 3500 BC.13 The water buffalo became almost as essential as water to the survival of the Marsh Arab culture. The buffalo spent their days foraging among the reeds of the marshes and the evenings seeking space around the fire and relief from the numerous mosquitoes that also inhabited the marshes. Buffalo dung was combined with reeds to make fuel for fires that produced an acrid smoke, serving as an effective insect repellent. Dung was also used to patch holes in the reed dwellings and as poultices for wounds. The buffalo provided milk, butter, and hides, as well as a source of income for the Marsh Arabs. They were often sold to outsiders to gain money for financing a wedding or settling a disagreement. The Marsh Arabs never consumed buffalo meat.13

The Marsh Arabs were skilled farmers growing rice and millet in the wetlands. Date palms, tomatoes, and melons were commonly cultivated crops. They were also skilled anglers. The wetlands supported numerous species of fish that the Marsh Arabs adeptly collected with nets. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the Marsh Arabs provided more than 60% of the fish consumed by all Iraqis in the mid-1980s.13

The healthy marsh ecosystem functioned as a natural filtration system, purifying water, trapping sediments and pollutants, and assisting desalinization of salty water.15 The vegetation, soil, and microorganisms of the marsh environment functioned synonymously in treating wastewater. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), wetlands are effective at reducing nitrogen, phosphorous, and suspended solids from the water by up to 98%.16 Marsh Arab women used ceramic vessels packed with charcoal as a means of further filtering water for drinking and cooking. The small amount of solid waste generated by the tribes was buried, and human waste was deposited at a “comfortable” distance from dwellings.13

The lush marsh ecosystem served as a nursery and habitat to numerous species of fishes, birds, and mammals, including 11 globally threatened bird species and 3 globally threatened mammal species. The marshlands also supported the intercontinental migration of birds, such as pelicans, herons, and flamingos, between breeding grounds in western Siberia and central Asia and winter quarters in Africa. The area provided a habitat for two thirds of wintering wildfowl of the Middle East.14

The intricate mazes of the southern marsh waterways and the dense vegetation also provided a habitat for less desirable sorts of creatures. For centuries, smugglers, thieves, and bandits sought refuge in the dense marshes. Political opponents who rebelled against ruling authorities, from British colonial rulers to Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards, fled to the cover of the marshes. Army deserters of the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s also sought refuge among the dense reeds. For this reason, dwellers of the more urban areas of Iraq maintained a long-standing suspicion and general distrust of those who dwelled in the marshes.13


Damming and irrigation projects carried out in the 1970s decreased the annual flow of water from the Euphrates River to the marshes by more than 30%.13 However, satellite images recorded in 1973–1976 revealed that the wetlands were essentially still intact and relatively unchanged.15 The pivotal point, which determined the future of Iraq's southern marshes and its inhabitants, came after the 1991 Gulf War. The Shi'ite Muslim Arabs of southern Iraq rose up and rebelled against Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist Party regime, which was run by Sunni Muslims. Hussein responded by brutally suppressing the uprising by sending his military forces to burn and bomb the villages of the Marsh Arabs.

Marsh Arab refugees evacuating to Iran described artillery and aerial attacks on civilian settlements, arrests, and executions. Explosive mines were planted on land and in the waterways by the invading military forces. Homes were burned to the ground. Marsh dwellers report that napalm was used to burn the reeds and chemicals were used to poison the marsh waters to ensure that the area remained uninhabitable. The United States estimates the death toll to be between 30 000 and 60 000.14 As destructive as the military's actions were to the Marsh Arab culture and the marsh ecosystem; Hussein still had one plan that would eliminate the problem of the Marsh Arabs and their forays against his regime.

Saddam Hussein unveiled a massive plan for draining the wetlands under the guise of a plan to create more agricultural land to provide food to Iraqis who were hungry under the sanctions imposed against Iraq by the United Nations after the Gulf War. Before beginning the project, Hussein promoted old prejudices and renewed suspicions of the Marsh Arabs. In April of 1991, The Ba'ath Party newspaper ran long articles attacking the Marsh Arabs for their “backwardness” and immorality, describing them as “monkey-faced people” who were not real Iraqis.17

Schemes by the Iraqi government to drain the marshlands for economic reasons had been in development since the 1950s; however, systematic drainage efforts were implemented only after the suppression of the Shi'ite uprising.1 Beginning in 1991, a series of dams, dikes, and canals were constructed by Iraqi authorities to prevent the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from flowing into the marshes. The Glory River, a shallow canal approximately 1.2 miles wide, was built to intercept the water from the Tigris River and divert it into the Shatt-al-Arab waterway that empties into the Persian Gulf. Another system captured the runoff from the central plains of Iraq. This water normally flowed into the marshes but was diverted into an underground siphon system below the Euphrates River, then into a canal named Saddam's River, eventually ending in the Persian Gulf. The third diversion was named the Mother of All Battles River in homage to the Gulf War. This system was designed to divert water in the Euphrates River, depriving the marshes further of the water that is essential to their survival.17

The completion of this system of diversions sounded the death knell for the marshes, which rapidly began to go dry. The fish and reed beds began to die, and the people and livestock began to suffer from hunger and thirst. The true extent of the environmental devastation was confirmed through comparison of satellite photos taken in 1992 and 2000 by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). These photographs confirmed that 90% of the marshlands had been destroyed. UNEP characterized the situation as “one of the world's greatest environmental disasters.”1(para 17)

The lifeline of the Marsh Arab culture had been severed. There were no longer reeds to build homes, fish to catch, birds to hunt, or water, which was essential to cultivate rice, maintain water buffalo herds, and, indeed, to sustain every aspect of the Marsh Arab way of life. The subsequent increase in water salinity was 12 times the value indicated by WHO as harmful for drinking purposes.18 This left the marsh dwellers no other alternative than to leave the area. Tens of thousands fled to refugee camps in Iran.1 One estimate places approximately 40 000 Marsh Arab refugees in camps or squatter settlements in the Khuzestan region of southwest Iran.14 The majority of Marsh Arabs were internally displaced into the towns and cities of Iraq. Here the Marsh Arabs continued to struggle with oppression and the discrimination by the urban Iraqis.19 There are no consistent figures of how many Marsh Arabs were internally displaced within Iraq. Various estimates indicate at least 100 000 and possibly as many as 190 000 people.1 No one knows how many have survived.14

There are varying estimates of the number of Marsh Arabs that remained after the marshes were drained. Conservative figures indicate that there may be as few as 20 000.14 Those that remained were often forcibly relocated as many as 18 times.15 Human Rights Watch reported that those who refused to vacate their homes were executed.1 Tribal leaders from different regions of the marshlands tell similar stories of forced removal of remaining tribe members by military and security forces, arrest and execution of young Marsh Arab men, bombing from airplanes, attacks by helicopter gunships, and burning of homes and entire villages.20

In April 1992, the Iraqi National Assembly created a housing program for the Marsh Arabs. The speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Sa'di Mahdi Saleh, detailed a plan to relocate 3000 to 4000 Marsh Arabs to houses built along the highway to Basra under the pretense of providing them with amenities and healthcare, and “mak[ing] them good citizens.”1(p9) Saleh further stated that the plan did not specify whether the Marsh Arabs would be given a choice about relocating; “whether we say it is compulsory or optional is of no significance to them.”1(p9) This plan, thinly veiled as one of humanitarian aids, was clearly created as a means for the Iraqi government to force political refugees out of hiding, decrease resistance to the marsh drainage program, and finally, to subdue the remaining Marsh Arab population. The continued forced relocation prevented the Marsh Arabs from establishing any consistent source of revenue.1

Dellapenna describes the Iraqi government's campaign against the Marsh Arabs as “ecocide as genocide.”10 He defines ecocide as the destruction of an entire ecosystem, noting that one of the unavoidable outcomes of such massive destruction is the extinction of species of animals and plants that were endemic to the marshes and found nowhere else on Earth. Dellapenna points out that this incidence of ecocide is exceptional in that the destruction was solely for the purpose of destruction, not for some debatably useful purpose such as economic progress. In this instance, Hussein adopted ecocide as an intentional means for the creation of genocide. Genocide, as defined by the Genocide Convention approved by the United Nations in 1948, is “deliberately inflicting on a group, conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” with the intent “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”10(para10)

The consequences of Hussein's campaign to employ ecocide as genocide are far-reaching and complex. Now that Hussein is no longer a presence in Iraq, many outside humanitarian aid organizations are trying to conceptualize the best way to restore the marshlands and the Marsh Arab culture. As these organizations formulate their plans, an understanding of the complexity of the marsh ecosystem, its relation to the Marsh Arab culture, the rest of Iraq, and the world is requisite.


Complexity science redirects the way we think about many systems that are only partially understood by traditional scientific methods.21 Complexity offers a way of going beyond the limits of reductionism, as it guides a view of the world that recognizes most systems are not machine-like or understandable through an examination of the system's parts; but rather mostly organic and holistic systems that are difficult to decipher through traditional scientific means.22 Complexity science supports the view, that while there is no inevitable outcome or singular answer, it is possible to conduct an analysis of a complex system in order to see what the possible set of outcomes or answers might be, and in situations of extreme dissipation, intervene in order to achieve preferable outcomes.23 Complexity science is liberal in the sense that the phenomena in question might be almost anything and the associated relationships are just as varied.24

There is no single identifiable “complexity theory.” An array of concepts, applicable to complex systems, are dispersed across a wide variety of fields from economics to ecology. Manson suggests that “complexity” is linked to research in 3 main streams.25 First is “algorithmic complexity,” from mathematical complexity, which contends that the complexity of a system is a function of the difficulty in describing the system characteristics. Second, “deterministic complexity” endeavors to simplify dynamic systems with the aid of chaos theory. Third, “aggregate complexity” considers how individual elements, all working together, create complex systems that have internal structure relative to a surrounding environment. Complexity research is increasingly considering systems of linked components and aggregate complexity attempts to access the holism and synergy that results from the interaction of the elements of the system.24 Ecosystems are an example of complex dynamics that defy purely mathematical analysis and are more appropriate to consider from a perspective of aggregate complexity. For example, environmental deterioration may have severe impacts on healthy social networks. Thus, a deteriorating local environment may trigger sudden disruption of social networks, which will fragment communities and enable the emergence of a social context in which disease and unhealthy behaviors emerge.9 Given the fluid nature of complexity concepts, it is important to note that the categorization of complexity presented here is just one of many and is subject to debate and change.24 It is beyond the scope of this article to engage in a full discussion of complexity science. Rather, the concept of complexity is used to illustrate and begin to appreciate the complex relationships between every element of the Iraqi marsh ecosystem.


Complexity theory emerged as a result of scientists, from many disciplines, gaining a new awareness that the universe is not a linear place. A new understanding of systems was developed. Broken down to their basic components, in spite of intensive study and analysis, systems did not always behave as expected. This was found to be the case in all types of systems from the weather and the immune system to subatomic particle systems. Explorations of these unpredictable phenomena lead to the development of complexity theory that is based on relationships, emergence, patterns, and the idea that small changes to a system can have significant effects. The theory maintains that the universe is full of systems that are complex and constantly adapting to changes in their environment thus the term “complex adaptive systems.”26 Complex adaptive systems are formed by a set of components that produce the system. Each word in the phrase “complex adaptive system” has significance. “Complex” implies many connections among a wide variety of elements. “Adaptive” suggests the ability to alter or change and to learn from experience. A “system” is a set of connected or interdependent elements.21 The components of the system interact and connect with one another in unpredictable and unexpected ways. Regularities begin to emerge from these interactions and initiate patterns that feedback to the system and influence the interactions of the system's components. Outside influences on the regularities and patterns of the system create a period of instability in the system until a new balance can be established.26 The concept of a complex adaptive system can be applied to the marsh ecosystem of southern Iraq.

Describing the marsh ecosystem as a complex adaptive system facilitates the identification of the components contained therein and understanding the interactions that occur among the components to establish the patterns of the system. The components of the marsh system can be identified as the water that flows through the system and all of the flora and fauna, from the microorganisms to the humans, who inhabit this ecosystem. Each of the components is intricately related to the other. For example, the health of the human inhabitants is dependent on the water; the filtration of pollutants from the water requires the vegetation and microorganisms living within the water; the presence of fish, as a source of food for humans and birds, requires unpolluted water; the reeds, as a source of food for the water buffalo, which provide sustenance to the humans, as well as a supply of building materials for shelter and items for trade, requires clean water; and the seasonal flooding, bringing fresh nutrients to the marsh ecosystem, requires a consistent water source. More than 5000 years of complex interactions in this system had created a pattern of regularities that allowed the perpetuation of the Marsh Arab culture over the millennia. Disruption of these patterns by influences from the outside environment on the flow of water into the system has created a period of flux in the marsh system that now struggles to establish new patterns and regain balance.


A system that has lost the ability to self-regulate requires intervention directed toward the restitution of the essential components of the system to return to a self-regulated state. Recovery requires a meticulous understanding of the dynamics that led to the loss of the system's ability to self-regulate so the intervention can function in a manner that supports the system's return to a balanced state.27 The application of the division of complexity theory described by Manson as aggregate complexity allows for an examination, in a nonreductionistic manner, of how the individual elements of a system are linked, functioning to create a system with complex behavior.25 Aggregate complexity is built upon a key set of 4 interrelated concepts: relationships between components of a system, internal structure and surrounding environment, learning and emergent behavior, and change and growth of the system.25

The core of aggregate complexity is within the relationships between the components of the system. In an ecological system such as the marsh, the key components are the flora and fauna (as described above in the complex adaptive system model of the marsh) and their relationships are largely defined by exchanges of energy and matter. The emphasis of the concept of relationships is that these serve to define the complex system more so than the constituent parts.25 The lesson to be learned from this concept, by those wishing to return the marsh to a self-regulating state, is that they must focus their attention on all of the components of the marsh system, not single out just one for intervention. They must also have a sound understanding of the complex interactions that occurred between all of the components to keep the marsh healthy.

The concept of internal structure focuses on the components of a system and their relationships, but goes a step further in recognizing that these components are not merely an indiscriminate gathering. The differing strengths of relationships between the components create an internal structure and those components with especially tight relationships form subsystems.25 In the case of the marshes, these may be tribes, families, or even herds of water buffalo or schools of fish. It is possible that components can belong to multiple subsystems in that a single Marsh Arab may be a member of a family but is also a member of the tribal village subsystem.

The environment is described as anything outside of the complex system although frequently this division is blurred. The existence of a system is based on its relationships with its external environment.25 This concept is especially important to consider for those interested in restoring the marshes. The marsh system was initially thrown out of balance by the overwhelming influence of factors from the external environment. Factors from the external environment will continue to play a deterministic role in the revitalization of the marsh. The discovery of huge oil reserves beneath the southern marshes and the interest of the Iraqi and global economies in tapping these reserves will influence the rebalancing process of the marsh system. Forces such as these will profoundly affect the relationship the marsh system develops with the external environment.

The concept of learning reflects the ability of a complex system to shape, react, and anticipate the environment. A complex system can generally cope with new situations due to the variety of its internal components and their complex relationships. However, in the case that no suitable components exist, the system cannot respond to the environment, often with disastrous results.25 In the case of the marshes, every component of the system ultimately had a relationship with the component water. When this component was removed from the system, no other existed to take its place; thus, the marsh system collapsed.

The concept of emergence is essential to complexity theory in that it highlights the unpredictability of the emergent phenomena of complex systems. Analysis of the characteristics of the internal components of a system will not reveal the emergent qualities of a system.25 Manson emphasizes this concept by noting that “any single change to an ecosystem can have far-reaching, large-scale effects due to not understanding emergence from complexity.”25(p410) Hussein's main goal, in depriving the marshes of water, was to displace the Marsh Arabs. The large-scale effects cannot be overstated. The far-reaching consequences of the marsh destruction include the following:

  • Destruction of a 5000-year-old cultural heritage that represents the modern world's link to the roots of civilization
  • Extinction of several endemic animal and botanical species that depended on the marsh environment
  • Disappearance of the way station for migratory birds, with adverse effects potentially spanning the continents of Eurasia and Africa
  • Saltwater intrusion into the Shatt-al-Arab, causing disruption of fisheries in the Persian Gulf
  • Higher soil salinity in the marshes and adjacent areas, depriving Iraq of much-needed agricultural land
  • Considerable disruption to the agricultural and food supply of southern Iraq, especially the loss of dairy products, fish, and rice cultivation
  • Desertification of more than 12 000 square miles and adverse indirect climatic impact to adjacent land.11

The unpredictability of emergent complex systems requires close consideration by those who believe that merely returning the river water to this region will repair the damage.

The final concepts of aggregate complexity address the change and evolution of complex systems. A system is described as dissipative when forces from the outside environment or internal disturbances drive it to a highly unorganized state before suddenly becoming more organized.25 The outside forces of Saddam Hussein's regime have driven the marsh environment system into a highly dissipative state. As Albrecht et al, point out, complex systems can evolve in ways that are unpredictable when in a state that is far from equilibrium. There exists the potential for greater complexity or greater disorder.27 Since the ousting of Saddam Hussein, many international aid agencies, that were blocked from entering the marsh area by Hussein, have now returned and are implementing programs to restore the marshes. Presently, many different people, including the Marsh Arabs themselves, have visions for what the marshland should become; however, the reality is that no one is sure what will happen to the marshes of southern Iraq, the Marsh Arab people, or their ancient culture.


In 2004, the Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology, Ministry for Planning and Development Cooperation (MPDC) based in Baghdad, Iraq, completed the Iraqi Living Conditions Survey (ILCS). One of the areas of focus was child health and nutrition. In 1990, Iraq ranked 50th on the United Nations Developmental Programme's (UNDP's) Human Development Index. In 2000, Iraq ranked 126th.28 Almost half of the Iraqi population is under 18 years of age, and most of the children alive today have lived under conditions of war and sanctions.28

The first Millennium Development Goal of the UNDP is to eliminate extreme hunger and poverty. The primary indicator used to monitor this goal is malnutrition among children 5 years old and younger. Results of the 2004 ILCS indicate the highest incidence of acute child malnutrition, defined as low weight for height, in the southern region of Iraq. This region previously had one of the lower incidences of chronic child malnutrition, measured by height for age, in all of Iraq.28 The low percentage of chronically malnourished children indicated a relatively stable food source that suddenly was no longer available as indicated by the high incidence of acute malnutrition. This data illustrates the impact that the destruction of the marshes had on the health of the children of southern Iraq. As Albrecht et al point out, human actions on established cultural and ecological systems are often manifested as epidemics of disease.27

Child malnutrition and child morbidity exist in a vicious cycle. Malnourished children are more prone to disease and those who are ill are more prone to be malnourished.28 As humanitarian aid organizations come to the former marshes of southern Iraq, the monitoring of child nutritional status stands to serve as an indictor of the effectiveness of their programs, whether their focus is on reflooding the area and reestablishing the rich agricultural heritage of the Marsh Arabs or the introduction and increased availability of health services to the area.

An ecological view of health emphasizes the preservation of all of the relevant systems that promote ongoing health.27 By applying complexity theory to the marsh system, the essential components that promote a healthy, self-regulating environment, which in turn supports healthy inhabitants, become apparent. Child nutritional status will improve in southern Iraq over time if the humanitarian aid organizations plan carefully and implement appropriate, sustainable programs in the former marshlands. Acquiring input from native inhabitants of this region will be essential to the success and survival of any program implemented in southern Iraq.

The challenge may come in recruiting healthcare workers and researchers who are willing to take the risks that are inherent in providing services in Iraq. Roberts and colleagues describe risky situations encountered while completing a study on civilian mortality in Iraq in 2003, shortly after Hussein was removed from power.29 Frequent precautions, including alterations in study design, were implemented to prevent endangerment of researchers' lives. Targeted study locations were clustered to decrease travel on roads with police checkpoints that were believed by the team members to be target identification screens for rebel groups. A particularly volatile area of Iraq required that the research team leave behind some of their equipment that, if found in their possession, could have led to imprisonment or execution. Roberts and colleagues identified simple acts such as stopping a car at a random point and walking away from it that were likely to result in the killing of the research team members.29 These scenarios emphasize the importance of adequate preparation, awareness of dangers, and education about high-risk circumstances and behaviors to maximize the safety of teams providing humanitarian aid in Iraq.

The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq has essentially put most humanitarian restoration efforts on hold as healthcare workers were threatened or left. The statistics related to healthcare providers in Iraq are grim. From April 2003 to May 2006, the Iraqi Ministry of Health reported that 102 doctors were killed. Nurses fared no better—164 killed and 77 wounded in the same period. In May 2006 alone, 8 doctors and 8 nurses were killed, and 42 doctors and 7 nurses were wounded.30 Iraqi professionals working with western organizations are the targets of kidnappings and killings by the insurgency.31 As many as 250 Iraqi doctors may have been kidnapped in the past 2 years.30 Stories of success in the current chaos of Iraq are difficult to identify, and where successes do occur they are slow and always a moving target.31 There is one place, however, that gives hope to restoration.


Since May 2003, the Italian Ministry for the Environment and Territory (IMET) has been providing funding and institutional support to the government of Iraq for the specific purpose of restoring the marshes of southern Iraq. The IMET has worked in collaboration with the Iraqi Ministries of Environment, Water Resources, and Municipalities and Public Works. The work has been implemented by the New Eden Team (NET), which is composed of 2 leading Iraqi nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Free Iraq Foundation (IF), and Nature Iraq (NI). Since the beginning of the project, more than 60% of the Marshlands had been reflooded as of June 2006.32 Dr Azzam Alwash, project leader and communication manager of the New Eden Team, reports that the work of this team is “one of the most positive stories coming out of Iraq, in contrast to the other stories that you hear with the gore and the violence and the kidnappings and so on.”7(para6)

Alwash describes the south of Iraq as a place where the NET can work in “relative freedom,” away from the rampant violence in the larger cities such as Baghdad and Fallujah. Although the risk is less in the south, the NET must be accompanied by tribesmen or guards to prevent the team members from being kidnapped for ransom or harassed. They must also carry legal paperwork to prove they are working on a legitimate project, and not collecting intelligence for any particular sect. Fortunately, according to Alwash, the NET members have been able to work over the past 2 1/2 years with “relative ease.”7

The remarkable feature of the approach the NET has taken to the restoration of the Iraqi marshes and the culture of the Marsh Arabs is the attention that is given to the complexity of the marsh system. The NET does not specifically identify the use of a “complexity science” approach to their work, but it is clearly reflected in the New Eden Master Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management in the marshlands area. The plan utilizes a self-described “holistic and integrated approach to address multiple issues simultaneously,” to gather reliable information to make reasoned decisions about water resource allocation and environmental management.32(p3) Fostering conditions under which adaptability and creativity can emerge from within the system is crucial to recovery.33 The Master Plan is comprehensive, addressing water utilization efficiency, environmental restoration, economic enhancement, flood control, and community building for returning people, in a way that respects the unique 5000-year-old Marsh Arab culture.32 Restoration efforts that require specific measurements, such as water evaporation and flow rates, are accomplished through traditional quantitative scientific methods. Analysis of satellite maps has allowed the identification of the precise location of marsh villages and waterways before the marshes were drained. The village development plan was created by thorough analysis and understanding of the territory and its functioning rules and patterns to create new sustainable development for southern Iraq.32 Other information, such as determining the wishes of the Marsh Arabs, is gathered through more qualitative means.

The desires of the Marsh Arabs have been a central concern in the planning by the NET to rebuild communities in the marshes. A tribal chieftain near Basra states:

It's all very well to idealize the simple life of the marshes, but Westerners forget that marsh children died of swamp fever and malaria. For some people, it's better to live on dry land with electricity in houses that aren't regularly flooded, near roads that take you to the city in less than an hour. The marshes were romantic, but we paid a heavy price.34(para41)

Members of the NET surveyed displaced Marsh Arabs to determine whether people wanted to return to the marshes. According to Alwash, the men said, “Yes, we want to go.” The women said, “Yeah, we'd like to go, but we want our TV. We want our telephones. We want light. We want schools for our children. We want a hospital for our children.”32(para43) The New Eden Villages is a plan to restore the Marsh Arab communities that integrates traditions of the culture with modern technology and conveniences. The New Eden Villages plan does not perceive a conflict between the traditional Marsh Arab lifestyle and modern technology, but proposes an intersection of green technologies and traditional environmental knowledge.32

The New Eden Villages project is completed in design only. Massive funding is required to build the villages in a way that is equitable to all of the Marsh Arab tribes to avoid conflict among the tribes. Currently, the NET is lobbying the Ministry of Environment to adopt the plan as a future project for 2008.7 The plans for the dwellings of the villages are unique in that they utilize the traditional building style, mudhif built of reeds, but add modern conveniences such as kitchens and restrooms with sewage collection systems to treat waste water instead of dumping it into the marshes. Solar cells and a community generator have also been included in the plans to provide energy to power modern appliances such as fans and air conditioners.7 The villages would be constructed to provide a traditional community for returning refugees while providing modern services such as potable water, sanitation, healthcare, veterinary care, access to quick transportation, telephone, electricity, and even Internet access. In 2006, many of the former marshlands are still wastelands and many returning marsh dwellers are returning to nothing. This creates a challenge and an opportunity to design creatively a restoration plan that allows for traditional lifestyles intersecting with the modern world.32

The Marsh Arabs have begun to return to the marshes. In effect, the increased violence in Baghdad has created a reverse migration from the slums of Baghdad to the restored areas of the marshes. Some of these returning people have taken it upon themselves to breakdown dams to increase available areas for fishing, which has become recognized as a more sustainable means of income than agriculture in the marsh areas. The number of water buffalo has increased to a point that officials no longer maintain a count. There is a struggle to maintain a balance in the marshes between what the inhabitants demand and what nature can provide.7 The renewed flow of the rivers brings highly polluted water into the area without the benefit of the natural wastewater treatment system of reeds and microorganisms that were present in the healthy marsh. Clean drinking water is at a premium. The river water gets progressively polluted from the north to the south as a result of sewage and industrial waste being dumped into the river upstream largely because of the lack of government services and a functional infrastructure in Iraq.7 Many of the elements that comprised the healthy complex adaptive system of the former marshes are now absent or severely limited in capacity.

As encouraging as the developments in southern Iraq are, Dr Alwash offers a caveat. The success of the marsh restoration depends on the efficient and scientific management of the limited water resources in Iraq. Agriculture, industry, and urban development all compete for water resources.7 The quality of state services is poor owing to chronic underfunding, poor physical infrastructure, scarcity and mismanagement of supplies, staff shortages, and lack of modern skills and knowledge. Corruption, inefficiency, and lack of security have hampered relief and reconstruction efforts. The acquisition of funding to implement the proposed projects is a large component of the plans' chances of success. Securing adequate, sustainable sources of funds may be an especially difficult challenge as many potential funders view Iraq, in its present state, as “a vast financial black hole.” 5(p11)

The complex adaptive system of the marshes of southern Iraq will demonstrate the emergence of new structures and properties as it begins to reorganize and revitalize. An example of emergent properties can be seen in the level of health of the marsh community that emerges from the activities and health profiles of the local population. A key idea related to the open, nonlinear systems recognized by complexity theory, is that the emergent forms of the system cannot be predicted from knowledge only of the system parts.9 Valiant efforts have been undertaken to view the southern Iraq marsh ecosystem in a holistic manner, but as long as many of the elements of the complex marsh system have tenuous existences, the final outcome is unknowable in the present.


The concept of a complex adaptive system promotes an understanding of the intricate network of relationships among all of the components that made up the Iraqi southern marsh system. The present dissipative state of the marsh system is easily recognizable. Conceptualizing the marshes as a subsystem of a larger complex adaptive system, the country of Iraq, may guide those who seek to study or lend aid to the former marsh inhabitants. The larger system of Iraq is also in a highly dissipative state as it struggles to regain balance among all of its components. There are many influencing forces on this system from the outside global environment that may help or hinder Iraq's progression from this dissipative state.

The application of a complexity framework to the present situation in Iraq provides guidance and insight into the developments that are occurring there. The difficulty encountered in anticipating or controlling events is reflective of the innate unpredictable nature of complex adaptive systems. Culture, societies, economics, and politics progress toward increasing complexity, and it takes time for that development to occur.35 The Master Plan for the restoration of the marshes has been described as “a living document that requires its own evolution,” on the basis of the various changes, constraints, and conditions on the ground.7(para16) Relief workers and researchers interested in the conclusion of the Marsh Arab's plight must be prepared, and allow the time required, for the evolution of this complex system. As Rihani points out, change adheres to an evolutionary path, and “there are no shortcuts to sustainable evolution.” 35(p2)


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environment; human rights; Iraq; systems theory; world health

© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.