Happy World Wetlands Day!

A Time to Restore

February 2nd marked the 52nd anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, this inter-governmental treaty sought to assure that the world would conserve and protect its wetlands and the attendant resources. The U.S. joined the Ramsar Convention in 1986.

Perhaps it is coincidence, perhaps not, but located in Southern Iraq and Iran lie the Mesopotamian Marshes, also known as the Iraqi Marshes, once the largest wetland ecosystem in the world before they were systematically drained by Saddam Hussein, now reduced to 10% of its former glory. None of us knows what species of plants or animals were lost in the draining, but something tells me the world is a little poorer for it.

Of the 2,430 wetland sites designated worldwide, 41 of them are located in the U.S. February 2nd, the day the Ramsar treaty was signed, is globally recognized as World Wetlands Day.

Oil and Water, a novel about oil spills and green technology is partly set in the Iraqi Marshes. Here’s an excerpt from the novel. If you care to read more, you can find it here.

Chapter Sixty-Seven

Robbie and Amara lay on a tightly woven reed mat beneath an open window, the spare light of the crescent moon casting the faintest of shadows. His arm rested protectively on her belly. The thin blanket that had covered them lay crumpled on the floor, thrown off in the dead of  the night’s heat. A cool light breeze blew off the water and in through the open window, washing over their sleeping bodies in an undulating rhythm that kept time with their breathing. Waves lapped against the Quonset hut’s foundation.

Robbie drew a deep, choking breath like one coming up for air after too long underwater. He coughed, waking himself, then bolted upright in bed, waking Amara.

“What is it?” Amara put a hand on his back. “Your heart is beating very fast.”

Robbie took several breaths in rapid succession then pulled her to him.  “You’re cold.” 

“So are you.” Amara grabbed the blanket and pulled it up over them. Robbie relaxed and they both lay down on the reed mat again. A rustle just below the hut refocused Robbie’s attention; he was out of bed in an instant.

“It’s only a mouse,” Amara said.

“We’re surrounded by water.”

“Not everywhere. Much is just mud. The water is high now because of the spring rains.”

“Well, how will he get out?”

“There’s always a way out,” Amara said. “Besides, mice are excellent swimmers. Please.” She opened her arms and he snuggled closer to her.

“Sorry. Just a little jumpy.”

“No one has been here for a long time. I’m sure it is very dirty in here.”

“I thought you said it was a little fishing hut.”

“Yes. It belonged to my grandfather’s father. Of course, when he left he had no more use for it, but my uncles still used it.” Amara’s voice stumbled. “Now there is no one to use it.” Robbie hugged her closed and smoothed her hair.

“Tell me about your dream,” she said.

“I dreamt that American troops were driving their jeeps through the marshes. They were coming from Baghdad on their way to Basra and the most direct route was straight through the middle. The jeeps had these pontoons on them that kept them afloat when the water got deep. There was a place in the water where it rose about six inches like it was going over something massive below. The lead jeep got stuck on it. It turned out to be a remnant of one of Saddam’s dams. Well everyone had to get out and engineer a different way across. They unloaded their mashufs, and troops started fanning out across the marshes in these canoes. I was watching from the reeds. Somebody came up behind me and grabbed me by the throat. I started choking … then I woke up.” Robbie rubbed Amara’s arm and she placed her hand over his heart. 

“You’re safe now. They won’t find you until you’re ready to be found.”

Robbie kissed the top of her head. She kissed his lips.

“Dawn’s coming soon,” Amara said. “Please let’s sleep.  In the morning, I’ll show you where you are.”


At dawn, Robbie and Amara climbed into the mashuf they had borrowed from her uncle, a boat builder whose shop sat at the tip of what remained of the Al Hariz marsh. A mullet, small and bony by any standard, rose to the surface in search of breakfast. Robbie jumped at the splash that signaled its return to safe water.

“It’s just a fish,” Amara said, handing Robbie a paddle. “And a small one at that. They are returning now that the dam has been destroyed.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it? I mean, about the dam.” Robbie started to paddle in time with Amara.

“Yes, very good, but not enough. The Minister of Irrigation estimates that when the dam was breached, over one hundred and fifty quadrillion gallons of water flooded back into the channels, only enough to return the water to the two closest villages. At one time, there were hundreds of these villages. At this rate it will take a thousand years.”

“Well, can’t they just open another dam?”

“They have opened all the dams. The water is no longer here.”

“Where is it?”

“Still in Syria and Turkey, being diverted for many projects. Agriculture, hydroelectric. Who knows what else? Saddam gave them our water. He stole it from his own people.”

“We’ll get it back.”

“It’s much more complicated than that. Here people fight over the right to use the water.  Maybe not so now in your country, but you see the beginnings of it in your American west. One day people in America will fight over water just as we do.”

The marshes were silent but for the lapping of the water on the shore and the slight rustle of the bulrushes. A fog had settled over the marshes and Robbie wiped at the drops of water that collected on his face. A bullfrog croaked. Robbie jumped, then relaxed.

Amara smiled and turned briefly to look at him. “You never fully get used to the noises that the marshes make. To live here is to constantly be on alert. So my grandfather has told me.”

They rowed together in silence until Amara directed the mashuf through vegetation so dense and intertwined that Robbie felt they were inside a tunnel. When they emerged on the other side, the first rays of the day had filtered through the reeds, creating a mosaic pattern across the surface of the water. A blue heron caught breakfast and retreated to safer ground, flying directly overhead.

“A most beneficent sign,” Amara said, bunching her fingers together and touching them first to her heart, then her lips and finally her forehead. She stopped paddling momentarily and squeezed Robbie’s leg. “There it is. The house of my uncle, Sayyid. We will be safe here.”


Robbie and Amara docked their boat on the small island where another hut stood.

“Who’s there?” said a voice groggy with sleep. Inside, the occupants of the house stirred, the first rustling of the day. Amara tied the canoe and grabbed Robbie’s arm just as Sayyid Sahain appeared in the doorway wearing the conventional robe and turban, but no sandals. In the misty morning light, Armara couldn’t clearly see the face of her uncle, still pressed with sleep, his hastily donned turban slightly askew.

“Who is there?”

“It is me, Uncle. Amara.”

“Amara! Is it you? I had word, but I did not dare hope. Allah be praised.” Amara’s uncle scrambled down to the dock and grabbed Amara by both elbows before crushing her to his chest in a warm embrace. “Allah has blessed me once again,” Sayyid said. He held her at arm’s length. “To look at you is to look again upon my brother’s face.” He wrapped an avuncular arm around her and patted her back before releasing her, then turned to Robbie, a question in his eyes. “And who is it that assures your safe travel?” he asked, sizing Robbie up.

“This is my friend, Robbie, Uncle. He is an American. He wishes to help our people. But first, Uncle, we must assure his safety. He has left his captain without permission.” Sayyid raised his eyebrows in disapproval.

Amara continued. “The Americans believe he is dead. There was a car bombing and … they did not find him.” Amara bowed her head and clasped her hands together. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I don’t mean to bring you trouble.” Sayyid studied Robbie’s face then looked to his niece’s bowed head.

“Amara. You could not bring more trouble than that devil Saddam has brought to his own people. Every day I ask Allah why he has allowed this. But Allah has turned his face away from us.” He lifted Amara’s chin. “You were always the impetuous one. By the grace of Mohammed, had you been born a boy I believe you would have stopped the devil himself.”

Amara smiled at her uncle and he stroked her cheek.

“Time has taught me many things,” Sayyid continued. “For the memory of your father, but more important, for you, I swear I will keep your friend safe among us until the time he chooses to leave.”

Sayyid turned to Robbie. “Welcome, sahib.” He took Robbie’s hand in one of his and with the other clapped him on the back. “You are safe here.”

“Thank you.”

“Call me Uncle as my niece does,” Sayyid said.

“Uncle,” Robbie repeated. Following Amara’s lead, he bowed his head slightly to indicate his respect.

“Come, come,” Sayyid said. “Let us go inside. You must be hungry. We will take a meal together and you will tell me of your plans.”


Inside, Sayyid’s wife Fawzia, was already grinding coffee. Sayyid made the introductions and Amara embraced her uncle’s new wife before the woman retreated to the hearth to prepare a meal worthy of visitors.

“Fawzia is a good woman,” Sayyid said. He directed them to several cushions scattered around a small round table barely a foot off the floor.

“I am sorry for you, Uncle. For my aunt. We had heard, but were unable to make the trip.”      

“Thank you, niece.” Sayyid bowed his head and touched his bunched fingers to his heart, mouth and forehead. “She was a very good woman, dead now these five years.”

“How did she die?” Robbie asked.

“From Saddam’s poison water.”

“Saddam poisoned the water? For real? Why isn’t everything dead?”

“He is the devil,” Sayyid said.

“I thought it was because of the dams,” Robbie said. “I didn’t know he used poison, too.

“He did not poison it with chemicals but with ideas,” Sayyid said. “And revenge. Revenge for the part my people played in the Shiite uprising in Iran. We are Shiite Muslims. Saddam is Sunni. So he tried to kill us by taking away our water. When the water is not fresh, it dies.”

“You mean it becomes stagnant?” Robbie asked.

“Yes. Stagnant. This water breeds cholera for which we have no cure.” Sayyid’s voice became soft.  “When I see the problem, I take her by tarrada to the doctor.” Sayyid turned to Robbie. “This is my large canoe, much bigger than my mashuf. It is more than thirty meters. Six people paddle while I hold her head in my lap, but it’s not enough. By the time we see the doctor, it’s too late.” Sayyid wiped at his eyes as if he had an itch. Robbie looked at Amara who put her hands in her lap and bowed her head.

“Saddam killed my beloved wife with his dams. With his evilness. This I know.” Sayyid adjusted his turban and straightened his robe. “My people lived here from the beginning of time. Now they live in refugee camps on the borders in Iran.”

“That’s why we’ve come, uncle,” Amara said.

Fawzia appeared with a tray containing three demitasse cups, sugar, spoons, and an ebriki, a small brass pot with a long handle, used to cook the coffee directly over the stove. Steam wafted from the narrow opening of the pot. Fawzia set the tray down and smiled at Amara and Robbie.

“You are hungry?” She brought her fingers to her lips to indicate eating with one’s hands.

Amara nodded and smiled. Fawzia squeezed Amara’s hand and left.

“She speaks only a little bit English, my wife,” Sayyid explained to Robbie.

Robbie nodded. “I’m sure we’ll manage.”


Want to learn more about the Marsh Arabs, the Iraqi Marshes, or wetlands and water health in general? Read Oil and Water and you’ll never think the same about wetlands again.

pam lazos 2.2.23

About Pam Lazos

writer, blogger, environmentally hopeful
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25 Responses to Happy World Wetlands Day!

  1. Great writing on a very sad subject, Pam. Keep up the good work! 🌞

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We recently visited Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. JoAnna says:

    I did not know about the Mesopotamian Marshes or their draining. I’m so sorry this happened. Your novel sounds very interesting. I’m looking forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful writing, Pam!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing your your wonderful writing. I found your site and let’s follow our blogs Anita

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lampmagician says:

    It looks like an exciting novel. Thank you, dear Pam. However, as I am following the miserable political way by Mullahs, they are damaging a lot of historical and natural lands one after another! In such areas, it must happen a thorough and proper job. Otherwise, there will remain only ruins!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. hilarymb says:

    Hi Pam – excellent chapter … I hope to read it … but it’s an area I’d also like to know more about – I knew Saddam had drained much of the marshes … ghastly destruction of a once magical area – Mesopotamia … an area one could dream of and imagine a beautiful life, til greed took over … congratulations on your book. Cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pam Lazos says:

      Thank you as always, Hilary. I’d like to learn more, too, and hope to get there in the next year or two. There was a group called “Eden Again”working to restore them so perhaps I’ll see if they’re still around. 😘

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Mick Canning says:

    A Reed Shaken by the Wind, by Gavin Maxwell, is an excellent book about the Marsh Arabs of Iraq. I’d recommend it highly!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You’re a fine writer, Pam. Any books in the works?

    Liked by 1 person

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