Returning water to the marshlands of Iraq

A Marsh Arab fisherman. Image: Emily Garthwaite

At a glance

The first phase of a spectacular public garden, designed to naturally recycle wastewater, has been completed in the once-vast marshes of southern Iraq.

The use of a simple and sustainable wastewater recycling process has made it possible to provide urgently needed clean water to revive the natural environment, enhancing the way of life of the Ma’dan community living locally, also known as the Marsh Arab people – one of humanity’s most ancient cultures.

The Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden project is not only ensuring better management of sewage discharges into the environment, it directly enhances the health of people living nearby. Wastewater, including sewage, is now treated by natural processes in a type of constructed wetland, and returned to the environment as purified surface water, expanding the wetland marsh area and supporting agriculture and fishing.

This natural approach to wastewater management has also created an extensive garden as an amenity for the local community. This carefully designed public space is intended to embody the rich cultural heritage of the region, and the way of life of the Ma’dan, while providing a landscape conducive to reflection and learning.

Historic site

The wetlands of southern Iraq, otherwise known as the Ahwar, are formed around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the eastern edge of the marshes, where the Shatt al-Arab river begins. This meeting point in Al-Qurnah village is thought by some theologians to be a possible site of the Garden of Eden.

The Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden serves El-Chibayish, the largest of the Marsh Arab towns, 50km (30 miles) west of Al-Qurnah. The Ma’dan developed their unique way of life around the resources of the marshes, which were once the world’s third-largest wetland and still comprise one of the world’s largest inland delta systems.

In the early 1990s, the military forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein secretly drained the immense Southern Iraq wetland marshes to punish Shi’a rebels hiding there. The regime transformed the region into a desert and tens of thousands of Ma’dan people were murdered, while hundreds of thousands more were compelled to flee.

Conflict transformed the wetland marshes into a desiccated landscape, disturbing its ecological composition, and leaving a detrimental legacy that still poses a serious challenge to its survival. In 2003, when Saddam Hussein was deposed, local people began to return, using small tools to break through the diversion dykes.

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) Nature Iraq was formed by chief executive Azzam Alwash, with a mission to protect, preserve and restore the environment and protect Iraq's rich cultural heritage. He is supported by managing director Jassim Al-Asadi.

Using heavy machinery, the NGO was able to rework the landscape and let water flow again. By 2006, water and vegetation returned, and by 2015, 58% of the wetland marshes’ original wildlife returned, along with some 250,000 of the Ma’dan people who had been displaced.

  • 250,000 People returned
  • 58% Wetland wildlife returned

In 2016, the Ahwar was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its biodiversity and ancient history and the Iraqi government made the region the country’s first National Park.

While the shadow of the war is receding, the latest threat comes from a changing climate, drought, and overuse of the rivers’ waters by upstream countries. In 2021, Iraq’s Center for Restoration of Iraqi Marshes & Wetlands estimated the full extent of the wetland marshes to be 9,648 square kilometres (3,725 square miles), less than 50% of the area covered 50 years ago; while just 2,590 square km (1,000 square miles) of what remains have enough water.

Powerful collaboration

The restoration of the 'Garden of Eden' was conceived by project director and artist Meridel Rubenstein as a powerful creative and cultural symbol to locate in an area recovering from civil war, cultural upheaval, and ecological disaster. The concept and project was developed in partnership with Dr Mark Nelson, who lived a few miles from her house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, US.

Dr Nelson is the chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics, and the originator of the Wastewater Gardens concept - the use of constructed wetlands to treat sewage and create beautiful park-like areas. Rubenstein expanded the idea of restoring the Eden of Iraq to include ecological wastewater treatment to protect human health and prevent ecological degradation.

Nelson and Rubenstein met Alwash in Colorado where he was speaking at a National Park conference, and he agreed that Nature Iraq would fully cooperate to bring the Wastewater Gardens process and technology to the country by joining the Eden in Iraq project. In a moment of serendipity, Rubenstein and Nelson discovered that Alwash was already calling the restoration of the southern Iraqi marshlands Eden Again.

Humanitarian response

The Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden project is a humanitarian response to the social and environmental upheaval in the wetland marshes, delivered via a water remediation initiative.

Marginalised communities like the Ma’dan often lack basic sanitation facilities. Where water and sanitation facilities do exist, the nature of the wetland marsh environment means challenges such as the high water table make it difficult to build effective toilets and facilities for wastewater storage and treatment.

Eden in Iraq is a beautifully landscaped public space that celebrates the cultural and design heritage of the region, while providing wastewater management, and much-needed clean water, restoring human and environmental health and supporting ecological education.

Initiated in 2011, the project has received support from local town councils, and the provincial and national governments in Iraq. In March 2023, with the support of the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, work on the first stage of the project began.

Water is safely extracted from wastewater, which is pumped to site along sewage lines, and processed naturally. It can be used to grow flowers, fruits, and other usable products, while safeguarding human health and local ecosystems.

Involving local communities in the creation of wastewater gardens has given people a stake in the ongoing upkeep of the facilities. It also reduces reliance on imported equipment, energy consumption, and other resources that might be necessitated with traditional wastewater processing.

Ancient arts and crafts

The creation of the garden engaged highly skilled local artists and artisans, using readily available local materials, and incorporating ancient crafts and techniques. This included the use of reeds and earthen bricks to build architecturally outstanding sun shelters.

The beautiful patterns for ceramic tiles used at the site were taken from ancient cylinder seals – decorated hardstone tools used for centuries to imprint clay as a unique signature or branding technique. Floral designs inspired by Mesopotamian embroidered wedding blanket patterns were incorporated into the wastewater garden design.

The creators say Eden in Iraq provides a sanctuary for reflection and relaxation in unsettled times.

Woven Mesopotamian wedding blanket. Image: Meridel Rubenstein ©2011-14
Architectural landscape plan for the wastewater garden, inspired by floral designs from traditional wedding blankets. Image: Meridel Rubenstein ©2011-14

Importance of wetlands

According to Wetlands International (WI), a non-profit based in the Netherlands, wetlands are valuable ecosystems and breeding grounds for many kinds of animals and organisms, including fish, birds, and mammals. Whether through the harvesting of plants and fish for food and fodder, the use of reeds and timber for household construction, or the provision of safe drinking water, wetlands can provide most, or all, of the natural resources required for human survival.

Wetlands also function as the best ecosystems for carbon sequestration, so the restoration and expansion of wetlands is important in climate change mitigation.

Communities living on or around wetlands are often amongst the poorest, and the most vulnerable to water-related diseases. The wetlands may be the only water source available for bathing, drinking and eating, but inadequate disposal of household and sewage wastes means they are often contaminated by human and animal faeces.

WI says the quality and quantity of water in wetlands are among the main factors determining the health of wetland-dependent communities.

How do constructed wetlands work?

Constructed wetlands are an ecologically sound approach to wastewater recycling, well-suited to many regions in need of water and safe sanitation. They can be deployed as natural wastewater treatment systems that filter and purify water without the need for chemicals or power.

They mimic the way naturally occurring wetlands work, using water, aquatic plants - like reeds, and naturally occurring microorganisms - along with a filter bed of sand, soil and gravel. Water slows as it enters the wetland, allowing gravity to take solids to the filter bed on the floor of the wetland.

Pollutants and nutrients present in the wastewater are then naturally broken down and taken up by bacteria and plants, removing them from the water. The retention time in the wetland varies depending on the design and desired water quality level, along with levels of UV radiation from the sun – an additional disinfection method for destroying disease-causing organisms in the wastewater effluent.

First phase completed

On 14 May 2023, Iraqi minister of water resources, Aun Thiab Abdullah, arrived onsite for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first completed phase of the Eden in Iraq project. He was met with a photographic display by Meridel Rubenstein, along with plans for the extended project.

A 10,000 square metre (2.5 acres) area has been completed, over a third of that planned for the entire project. The works have been delivered under the umbrella of the US and UK non-profit Institute of Ecotechnics, based in Santa Fe and London, along with Nature Iraq, and with the support of the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources.

  • 2.6 ha Area of Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden
  • 10,000 People benefiting from sewage treatment

The minister has authorised work on the remaining 19,500 square meters (7.3 acres) of this initial project and a further eight constructed wetlands throughout Iraq, since the country widely lacks effective sewage treatment. Eden in Iraq will become a powerful symbol of regeneration in an area which has seen civil war, cultural conflict and environmental degradation.

Completion of the restoration project and its expansion to other Marsh Arab towns could provide access to clean water and sanitation services for over 100,000 people in this region and is also critical to mitigating the effects of a changing climate.

After treatment, water can be safely released into the wider environment and used for various purposes, including agricultural irrigation.

The flexibility of constructed wetlands in terms of design, materials and technology means they can be adapted to local conditions where land is available. Costs largely depend on the price of land and materials, but where land is cheap and materials can be locally sourced, constructed wetlands are a very cost-effective method of wastewater treatment.

They use minimal electricity and technical equipment, so they are vastly less expensive to build and operate than conventional wastewater treatment plants.

Wastewater Gardens have been implemented in 14 countries, in climates varying from temperate to tropical to desert over the past 25 years. Like other constructed wetlands, they range in size depending on the population served. The Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden will cover 2.6 hectares (6.5 acres) to treat the sewage from 8,000-10,000 people in El Chibaish.

Not only do the restored wetlands build resilience in terms of water reserves and human health, but a single square kilometre of healthy marshland absorbs 1,500 tons of carbon per year via the planted vegetation. An equivalent area of wastewater garden stores more carbon than a rainforest, so protecting and expanding marshlands is an effective way of counteracting climate change.

Gardens of the future

This first demonstration Wastewater Garden has created an example that can be scaled up and down and repeated throughout Iraq and the wider region, where land is available, and adequate sustainable sewage management is lacking. For local communities, the gardens can serve as a community hub, supporting trade and sustainable cottage industries to bolster the regional economy. Treated water can be used for aquaculture and agriculture, and for additional plantings of trees, critical for climate control.

Global interest in the Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden project is gathering pace. In 2020 it was chosen as one of 100 grassroots projects for UNESCO’s Green Citizens Initiative, which aims to support and shed light on citizens’ engagement for the planet.

In July 2023, filmmakers from the Brave Blue World Foundation arrived onsite to capture the Eden in Iraq project for a forthcoming documentary on groundbreaking global water initiatives and the crucial importance of water in the modern world.

For millions of migrants and refugees adrift in the world today, the Ma’dan of the Mesopotamian marshes in southern Iraq offer a stunning example of displaced people returning home to heal and restore their desertified land.

For the project partners, they continue to seek funding for these extraordinary initiatives that combine the pressing need for environmental and cultural restoration, along with delivery of urgent public health measures.