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The Last Of The Marsh Arabs

© Emily Garthwaite

Iraq is one of the most climate-vulnerable places on Earth.

What happens to a community and ecosystem at the nexus of geopolitical tensions and climate change? And can 6,000 years of history save them?

The Mesopotamian marshes, named for the historic region defined by the Tigris and Euphrates and often thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden, lie on a vast, flat floodplain where the lower courses of the rivers come together to form an extensive inland delta. Historically, winter rains and snowmelt at the headwaters caused floods to the south, and the marshes would absorb this excess like a sponge, swelling outwards with seasonal growth and then shrinking in the lean summers by draining to the Persian Gulf. The inundations deposited silt from the mountains that fertilized the land, creating a diverse, lush ecosystem in an otherwise arid environment.

Early settlers worked this ground to grow crops and domesticate animals; eventually, around 6,000 years ago, agriculture led to urbanization. These early cities — Eridu, Uruk, Ur and others — relied heavily on the natural resources of the marshes and were strung along waterways and latticed with canals to give access to the plains, the Gulf and to one another. Farmers grew barley and wheat and cultivated orchards of date palms, under which prospered gardens of fruit and vegetables. People dug clay from the ground for pottery, and early forms of writing were developed to keep track of the burgeoning trade between cities. When UNESCO added the Iraqi marshes as a World Heritage Site in 2016, it was in recognition of the area as a cradle of civilization as much as for its biological diversity.

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