From the Mississippi to the Tigris: River restoration lessons travel far

Shannon Cunniff

Three and a half years after the last American troops pulled out of Iraq, and despite intensifying civil conflict, the nation of 36 million is seeking to rebuild. Environmental restoration is part of the picture, and the need is especially urgent in the legendary Iraqi marshlands by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein drained these freshwater marshes to drive out his enemies. The once-vibrant river marshlands, not far from where the Mesopotamian civilization flourished, lost its flora and fauna.

Today, the marshlands are just 30 percent of their historical size. The 100,000 “Marsh Arabs” who had fled the area under Hussein have returned to drier wetlands that lack the economic viability, marine life and fruit groves that existed in the past.

Iraqi river experts seek ideas

Among these communities’ big challenges is a lack of reliable water resources to nourish the marshes. Upstream provinces’ flood irrigation practices and new dams on Turkey’s Great Anatolian Project have greatly diminished water quantity and degraded the quality of what water there is. 

The good news is, the Iraqis don’t have to start from scratch. Other nations, including the United States, have faced similar challenges and can offer support and expertise.

This is why I recently found myself at a meeting convened by the U.S. Department of State to discuss our work on the Mississippi Delta and Colorado River with eight Iraqi men and women. They represented Iraq’s agriculture, water and environment agencies, the University of Basrah; and Nature Iraq, an environmental group.

Colorado River Delta offers lessons

The State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program had asked Environmental Defense Fund and other American non-profit and academic communities to meet with the Iraqis to discuss how our river restoration experiences could be useful for the Tigris and Euphrates.

Our key message: Non-governmental organizations can help public agencies such as Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources develop and implement strategies for sharing water during shortages, and for ensuring that some water is used to support wetlands and riparian vegetation needs - just like we did here in North America.

I told the Iraqi delegation about the historic, bi-national water-sharing agreement reached in 2012, known as Minute 319, which also set up the Colorado River Delta “pulse flow.” I shared how we had managed to build strong support for the pulse flow in an over-used desert river, amid an extended and severe Southwestern drought.

Our secrets? Years of fostering top-level support among federal decision-makers in both the United States and Mexico, bringing ideas each side perceived as a “win,” and shepherding discussions to keep both countries working towards common goals.

Also important was the commitment by the non-governmental organizations to help fund water acquisitions that contributed to a base environmental flow in the river. The flow is needed to sustain habitat.

Business support key to success

The Iraqis were especially interested in our and our partners’ efforts to raise funds to purchase and lease water for the base flow, and how we routinely work with business communities to build support for our environmental work.

Funding for restoration work in the Iraqi marshes remains a challenge, so our visitors wanted to hear how we had collected economic data on wetland restoration benefits – and then used it to encourage national and local business groups to support legislation that funded restoration of the Mississippi River Delta. 

Indeed, we have learned that to be successful, environmental restoration must also benefit local communities and the economy as a whole. This is as true in Iraq as it is here.

What’s more, equitable sharing of reliable water supplies is critical for peaceful economic growth, and thus important for world security. It’s clear that environmental restoration and continued sustainability are goals people around the globe can share.