The Marsh Arabs (Arabic: عرب الأهوار ʻArab al-Ahwār “Arabs of the Marshlands”), also referred to as the Maʻdān (Arabic: معدان “dweller in the plains”) or shroog (Arabic: شروگ, “those from the east”)—the latter two often considered derogatory in the present day—are inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands in the south of Iraq as well as in the Hawizeh Marshes straddling the Iraq and Iran border.
Comprising members of many different tribes and tribal confederations, such as the Āl Bū Muḥammad, Ferayghāt, Shaghanbah and Banī Lām, the Maʻdān had developed a unique culture centered on the marshes’ natural resources. Many of the marshes’ inhabitants were displaced when the wetlands were drained during and after the 1991 uprisings in Iraq.
Since Sumerian times, agriculture in Mesopotamia involved major drainage and building of irrigation canals. After the collapse of Mesopotamian civilization and the Arab conquest, the territory was derelict, which resulted in the restoration of the original wetland conditions. The wetlands were gradually populated by the Ma’dan, who grew rice and grazed buffalo on the natural vegetation. At times, the marshes have also served as a refuge for escaped slaves and serfs, such as during the Zanj Rebellion.
Draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes
The draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes occurred in Iraq and to a smaller degree in Iran between the 1950s and 1990s to clear large areas of the marshes in the Tigris-Euphrates river system. Formerly covering an area of around 20,000 km2 (7,700 sq mi), the main sub-marshes, the Hawizeh, Central, and Hammar marshes and all three were drained at different times for different reasons.
The draining of the marshes was undertaken primarily for political ends, namely to force the Marsh Arabs out of the area through water diversion tactics and to punish them for their role in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein’s government. However, the government’s stated reasoning was to reclaim land for agriculture and exterminate a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The displacement of more than 200,000 of the Ma’dan and the associated state-sponsored campaign of violence against them has led the United States and others to describe the draining of the marshes as genocide or ethnic cleansing.
The draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes has been described by the United Nations as a “tragic human and environmental catastrophe” on par with the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and by other observers as one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th Century.