Monday, April 27, 2009

On NPR today

Today I was on NPR on the marshes. To hear the radio podcast go to

You are also invited to a public talk onWed April 29 at 4:00 pm in 1001 Mariposa Hall on the CSUS campus

Monday, April 20, 2009

Shatt al Arab April 16

Several of us went out on a large boat on the Shatt al Arab from Basrah. This is upriver from Iran, although the impacts of the Iran-Iraq war could be seen. There were a lot of large dead ships in the water and along the banks. This would be worth a fortune in salvage, that metal would be worth millions at least! There was not much riparian vegetation, and all exposed flat areas were covered with garbage. There was not a lot of additional boat traffic besides us.
Some of the side channels were quite lovely, with date palm trees and bougainvillea and reeds. You got a sense of the pre-war Shat al Arab, and how beautiful it was. We got to get out and walk around on private land at one point, and stretch our legs. Saw some beautiful birds in the natural areas. Very little riparian development along the main stem of the river. A great restoration opportunity, including native species and date palms – a living working landscape!
A patrol boat drove up to us with American and Iraqi soldiers. They were patrolling “to keep us safe.” I was wearing a scarf and looked down with my back to them and stayed quiet. I guess if they knew an American woman was on board they would have really hassled us for a long time, wondering what I was doing there. It made me realize things weren’t really safe. They were suspicious and kept getting their boat closer - I’m so much taller than Iraqi women, plus I was in field clothes and they were dressed beautifully. The soldiers asked if we had guns, meanwhile saying they were there to protect us and acting friendly. We were glad when they left.
We passed Saddam’s palace. It was huge. He had never been in it. The British and now Iraqi soldiers are garrisoned there. A sign says anyone coming within 50 feet will be shot. We stayed far away.
The joy of the day was being with Iraqi families and visiting on the boat. It was thoroughly an enjoyable treat to be with everyone.
However, the air was horrible. It wasn’t a driving dust storm, but the air was foglike and sepia toned from all the dust. It obscured our vision, and burned eyes and lungs. Pretty awful.
I’m left with the impression that this area has highly polluted air, land and water. It’s very important to document toxins with good lab equipment to then remediate and begin to rebuild a healthy environment. The Shat al Arab is much more salty, from 1 ppt to 4-5 ppt. Flows are significantly reduced. In 1977-1978 they were from 990-1,277 m3/sec; in 1993-1994 550-1,100 m3/sec, from 2005-2006 204 m3/sec, and this year <100 m3/sec. That is a significant reduction. Shad populations have declined 75%. Many other invertebrates etc are also declining, and the salty turbid water with warmer temperatures is adversely affecting the gulf. Terrible degradation of ecosystem structure and function.

al Ahwar the marshes April 15

Al Ahwar Field Trip to Marshes April 15
We went on a bus to the marshes on April 15. Driving to the marine science center, we passed extremely polluted water with the algae Dunaliella sp turning the water bright pink. Garbage was everywhere. Stray dogs snuffled through the garbage, well fed but in ill health. Little wetlands were also full of trash. Sheep and goats were moved by a shepherd, taking care that they stay together as they eat sparse vegetation and trash. Kids play soccer in the garbage. Here is the world’s largest economy in the world, with rubble from bombed buildings, trash and filth. Homes are mostly concrete block construction, with almost all of them having satellite dishes. I guess satellite dishes and TV’s are relatively cheap in Iraq.
We got to the marshes, and there were three boats waiting for us. One larger boats had supplies, and the other three were ready to transport us up the river. This are had been drained under Saddam’s rule. During the rehydration phase had been in fairly deep water, and now the water was much shallower. There are not banks, and a very flat topography. Vegetation is dominated by relatively short Phragmites reed, around 4 feet to 5 feet tall. They get much more dense and tall when they are mature.
We passed large piles of dirt. I guess these were bunkers from the war between Iraq and Iran, and a tank would have been behind them.
We saw grass houses along the banks built of reeds with some concrete blocks and barbed wires. They said the men come out here to the marshes to take care of the water buffalo. The water buffalo we saw were sleak and healthy looking.

We stopped for lunch, and they had brought fresh fish. It was my first experience of masgoof, fish cooked over an open fire! The feast was amazing, with cooked fish, Arabic bread, fruit, watermelon, cucumbers, water buffalo yogurt, greens, raw onion. Excellent!
We walked around the marshes after lunch. Someone found a young female Mesopotamian Marsh soft shelled turtle I got to hold, plus a large turtle shell. Some fishermen were pulling in net, very large net and a lot of work. They said there used to be many more fish. We shared our lunch with them in true Iraqi hospitality.
We also shared with Water Buffalo dog. It had been taking care of the water buffalo, and came up to us when it realized lunch was to be served. Very politely, the black and white dog with curly tail sat away from our lunch and waited on the outskirts. As we finished our lunch, he got bread, fish, and doggy feast. He did the same thing when the fishermen ate their lunch and once again was rewarded with his second doggy lunch. A happy dog, looking pretty healthy. I watched him touch noses with the water buffalo and play with them.
I haven’t identified the birds yet. A large kingfisher, some white egrets/ herons, a turn of some sort. Lovely day on the marshes.
I had to go poddy, there was no cover and no ladies room. Walked WAY down the bank, then into reeds for privacy. Definitely got muddy above my knees and almost lost my shoe in the mud. All the men were clean and white, and I was a mud puppy. They laughed but were very polite. When we got back to the Marine Science Center, Dr. Malik said I could not wash my clothes and bring some Mesopotamian mud back to America with me. I did bring the turtle shell back! What a great day.
After lunch the men prayed. Then we had tea, and I passed around Trader Joe’s snack mix. They hadn’t seen dried cranberries or blueberries; not sure the anti-oxidant properties translated. They all told jokes in Arabic, and I enjoyed not having to talk and being in the marshes. A wonderful day! Pictures to come!

April 13 Input

April 13 – Meeting on Sustainable Rehabilitation of Iraqi Economy, Ecosystems and Human Dignity
We had a meeting with many participants of the conference on Monday evening, organized by Dr. Malik and Dr. Adil of the Marine Science Center. Things in the marshes are in crises from both a human and ecosystem perspective due to lack of water. Mr. Hameed Abid, an invited guest speaker with expertise on investments, made three main points on difficulties in investing in Iraq: 1) foreigners are not allowed to own land, so would not want to invest in something where the business or investment could be nationalized or lost; 2) it’s extremely difficult to obtain a Visa for non-Iraqi’s; 3) there are poor management / business practices in Iraq. Therefore, funds disappear instead of being allocated to the tasks and deliverables of a given project. He suggested several investment priorities, including appropriate housing, hospitals, and schools as well as other business investments.
Other points made at this meeting and the conference is the critical need for schools, medical clinics and literacy, particularly in the marshes. Illiteracy has increased since the country has become so unstable over the last decades. This results in it being very difficult for young people to find employment, and to begin rebuilding the countries social infrastructure and intellectual capital. The Universities are free, so young people who become literate have many opportunities for education.
Dr. Hamid Ahmed represented the Prime Minister’s Office. He stressed the importance of returning water to the marshes, and investing in marsh rehabilitation.
During my presentation, I noted that there simply won’t be enough water to rehydrate the marshes. I recommended that a core conservation area be established using Biological Conservation Areas (such as those identified by Nature Iraq and Birdlife International) with flow through water. Then a buffer area with fishing or waterfowl management. Then an agricultural area with rice, date palms, citrus or crops. Human core areas could be established peripherally to the conservation areas for villages, archaeological sites, or sacred sites. I recommended that once the country was peaceful, ecotourism would be a good way to generate income in the marshes. Mr. Abid recommended this as well.
Ideas from audience (as best I could tell not speaking Arabic)
One person in the audience did not want to see the marshes exploited as a tourist area. He wanted to emphasize the eco-cultural aspect of the marshes. He felt Iraq was not ready for globalization.
Dr. Khalid Alfartosi “People think we don’t except change, but we do accept change. Someone told you we are like savages. People in the marshes need education, need to communicate with the outside world. The core thing to the Madan is to read buffalo and catch fish. We need to develop this.”
The young (less than 30) don’t like to go back to marshes, older people (>45) do
There is no life without water buffalo. We need a good life and resources. Some don’t want water to go back to the marshes because they are growing rice where the marshes once were.
The representative of the Minister of Environment. The marshes were 9,000 km squared in 1973, are less than 3,000 km now. We spent $225 billion D on the marshes in 2006. Now the money is lost with nothing to show for it. The government is now focusing on roads, schools and infrastructure. We have a Strategy Plan until 2014, with an Agreement with the United Nations. We have a conference in Amar in June to discuss the Strategy Plan. The first phase of the plan is conducting a comprehensive survey of everything in the marshes. UN Agencies such as UNEP will collaborate.

Friday, April 17, 2009


[Dave Hill posting for Michelle Stevens]

April 17, 2009 @ 2:00PM local time, Kuwait:

I am in Kuwait at the KISR with my friend Faiza al Yamani. She is praying so I can write. I had a driver and security protection to Iraq border, got out quickly. Took quite a while to get into Kuwait. It's around 2:00 in the afternoon here, my plane leaves around midnight. I slept all the way to Kuwait City.


I made some wonderful new friends.


[Michelle sounds exhausted, happy to have gone but happy to come home. She will be landing in San Francisco at 3:15PM Saturday and stay in the Bay Area until Sunday afternoon / evening. She may or may not have her phone ON this weekend. I suspect she will need a little down time.]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Update from Basrah

[Dave Hill posting for Michelle Stevens]

April 15, 2009 @ 6:45AM local time, Basrah:


Driving or walking through the streets of Basrah is hope inspiring and heart breaking. Driving to the Marine Science Center yesterday, I saw signs of replanting the public parks, small though they may be. Along the Shatt al Arab, the division between Iran and Iraq, there used to be statues of soldiers holding guns pointed at Iran. Now there is public art. Statues of pots of water, colored lights, a sort of board walk at night. One statue of twin dolphins was very beautiful, swimming together. There was a second statue of a large whale, broken in half by a shell. This area has seen active war since the 1980's, and it shows on buildings, streets and people’s faces; warm smiles with sad eyes.

In 2000 UNEP wrote a report o the desiccation of the marshes, chronicling the desiccation of the marshes. Over 90% were destroyed. By 2007, over 58% were rehydrated. In October 2008, the al Haweizeh, the best and most beautiful, was nominated as a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention. In 2008 there was a drought. This year, Iran has completed a diversion channel on their side of the marshes, diverting the Karkeh River around the Haweizeh. It is dry this year, this magnificent and best wetland, unscathed by Saddam Hussein, is dry. The second trajectory of having the wetland become a World Heritage Site will be impossible. Everything is impossible without water, even peace.

The Iraqi's have asked for my help. I toured the prestigious Marine Science Center. The scientists are doing admirable work here, very important work. They have no access to the world’s scientific literature. They have [an outdated] Encyclopedia Britannica, absolutely NO recent or major scientific journals to develop their work. The library does not have access to major data bases for research that we have at our Universities, colleges, and even community colleges, high schools, to some lesser extent public libraries. The equipment they are using to sample soil and water chemistry for soil, water and air contaminants is impossibly low technology and dated. Our CSUS Chemistry Department scientists would cry, at least Mary would. I didn't even see a hood.

By the way, when we drove to the Ceter, the tributary of the Shat al Arab, running along the road we saw […] was a burnt sienna pink color - obviously some industrial chemicals and raw waste was entering the water supply. My hair feels weird from washing in the water here, although don't think its caustic to my skin. Just not clean. I wonder about brushing my teeth.

So what we have is the premiere prestigious scientific institution, and government environmental scientists, not having the labs to test for or in any way remediate highly toxic air, water and soil; this after constant war, chemical weapons unleashed in the Iran and Iraq war (by Saddam Hussein, given by U.S.A.).

I feel I have a big responsibility when I come back: Help, Publicity, [tell] the story.

I was able to walk back from our restaurant last night…. The dogs on the streets are in awful condition, skinny and mangy, running with their tails between their legs furtively. One had its hind left leg at a right angle. All were limping.

As we walked, soldiers drove by in the backs of trucks fully armed, with sirens and lights. It was scary. We walked well away from the streets, as the drivers do NOT slow for pedestrians. At least they didn't swerve.

End of this transmission.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Big Problem..., Big Problem Resolved

[Note: this is Dave Hill posting segments of correspondence for Michelle Stevens. She's a bit busy at the moment...]

April 11, 2009 @ 10:50PM local time, Kuwait:

I might have a big problem. I thought I could get a Visa at the border to Iraq, but may not be able to get into the country... I'm at KISR [Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research] and trying to get through to American Embassy.

I'll keep you informed. Please keep your cell phone on if I get to Iraq during meetings and at night in case I need to contact you....


April 12, 2009 @ 11:13PM local time, Basrah, Iraq:

The Eagle has landed, but just barely.... ALMOST did NOT get through security, had five men arguing for me against an extremely stupid bureaucrat. They called finally to the Prime Minister's office..., and got verbal approval to let me in. We had a tank and armed escort, so got through all roadblocks. They have hired two guards in plain clothes and put me in a hotel in Basrah - sorry I don't know the name. The three numbers I gave you are good.

I'm here and meeting wonderful people, great opportunities, really excited. Was really scared. Tomorrow plus next day in conference, Wed in marshes. Not sure about Thursday, but will go back to hotel in Kuwait City Thursday night. May rest and go to aquarium in Kuwait City Friday. E Shallah!

Ma'a sallama,



April 12, 2009 @ 9:20PM local time, Basrah:


Had an unbelievably good day, although fell asleep in last session and they had to wake "Dr. Michelle" up...

Two bus loads of scientists loaded up to go to the Oil Ministry Building. We were guarded before and after the buses with tanks and soldiers. If anyone stoppped too long, the soldiers got out and moved them out of our way.

Traffic is crazy here.

Basrah is slowly rebuilding itself. Many buildings are shattered by bombing and destruction. At the same time the city is rebuilding itself with new buildings going up, people on the streets, new businesses. Lots of stray dogs sleeping in areas without people... Also lots of stray cats, mostly skinny and pregnant.

Its very sad because children are gathered in the corners of many intersections, being given things to sell to cars. A grown-up is giving a flock of young boys some trinkets to sell, like plastic hearts on sticks, or they wash windows hoping for money. The air is very polluted and dusty, and these children are in the middle of traffic pollution. Not School. Very sad.

There are about 400 scientists here. We are guarded as they are Iraq's brain trust. There was a list of dignitaries this morning. The Minister of Environment for Kuwait with full train of body guards spoke of the marshes.

Iraq has to pay reparations to Kuwait for invading them, and Iraq is balking at paying Kuwait the money the World Court ordered them to pay. The [Kuwait] Minister said they still need to pay, but Kuwait would give [money] to restore the marshes. We had the Governer of Basrah, and major ministers, sing the new National Anthem of Iraq. We started with a reading from the Koran. Reporters wanted to interview me, but would not do an interview during a prayer.

Ish Allah ha ill Allah. There is no God but God....


April 13, 2009 @ 9:20PM local time, Basrah:


My talk followed the dignitaries, and I cut it to 20 minutes. It went very well. I spoke slowly in English, and offered to collaborate with Iraqi scientists. They do not have simple things like access to professional journals and proper instrumentation. The years of being shut off by Saddam and then by the war show.

American marines were guarding the Oil building as well as Iraqi soldiers.

Iraqi hospitality and generosity is amazing. After my talk, the young women thought of me as a bit of a woman role model and wanted to have their pictures taken with me. The scientists swarmed around me and I had two TV interviews. All morning had two wonderful translators to help me understand; I wish I could speak Arabic. I hope to develop cooperative research arrangements with US scientists.

Sadly, tragically, the marshes are once again drying, gasping, flopping oxygenless on the beach. From the peak rehydrating of the marshes up to 2008, the drought severely curtailed the life in the marshes and aerial extent ot wetlands. The waters of both the Tigris and Euphrates and Gulf are warmer, salty, polluted. Many areas have dried up. Environmental refugees moved back to the marshes, and now must move in poverty to the cities. One excellent talk was of a marsh Arab family living on land that was not theirs, caring for water buffalo to create new lives. Very beautiful, poignant and sad.

The women are all engineers or scientists, and very beautiful. A wide range of colors, from conservative black abaya to colorful suits (long skirts or pants) with scarves. Very attractive. A woman told me the black abaya keeps women safe; they don't need body guards, they are sacrosanct. They are protected, not under a patriarchal thumb as we Americans think. More and more I am drawn to working for women, for their education and employment, as I think that [approach contributes the most to] heal the community and the land.

Saw Iraqi eagles today, in cages but magnificent!

Will sign out and try to do one more. Can you post for me?


April 13, 2009 @ 11:51AM local time, Basrah:

Hi Dave, First, this machine is so slow...,

Important information:

The hotel is Ay-Iyoon Hotel i Basrah. The numbers are 618148 or 614773 or 615138. Don't know country code. I a Dr. Michelle in 201. You may have a hard time a they don't speak English.

[The country code is 964, the local area code is 40. They are 10 hours ahead of us.]

My schedule for today is the conference, tomorrow we go to marshes. On Thursday I am going to marshes with Jazzim from Nature Iraq without guards. I will stay at this hotel Thursday night and get a ride to the border on Friday mornig. I will be with my friend Faiz l Yamani [and go] to aquarium in Kuwait. I have her cell at 00 965 9903 9509. She doesn't have many minutes... [please don't call her]

Well, the day I am nervous about is Thursday, but Jazzim has taken many people to the marshes with no problems.

I have had so any invitations to Iraqi homes, an Iraqi symphony concert, to go to the marshes with a Marsh Arab women. Wish I could stay longer. May (most likely) be back.

En Shallah!



Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Leaving on a slow camel on Friday

April 8, 2009
In 2002, there was an email advertising for a Project Manager for the Eden Again Project, which combined wetland restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes and ethnoecology. I hadn’t really looked at it, as my dog Ollalla was dying of cancer. However, my friend Robin said to me, “Isn’t this what you do?” Well, yes, it was. So I contacted Suzie and Azzam Alwash, and began working on Eden Again Project. This experience truly changed my life. In a world out of balance with war, environmental injustice, human suffering I have had the great blessing of meeting truly great people who care deeply and make a difference. Azzam Alwash has certainly been an inspiration to me, as he started the Nature Iraq project and brought the world’s attention to the plight of the marshes. He and his wife Suzie have put big dreams for Green Villages, maintaining the hydrology of the revitalized marsh ecosystem, cleaning the water, bringing people home to their traditional lives in lives with restored dignity. Baroness Emma Nicholson of the AMAR Appeal, who for years has worked to provide shelter and refuge for the Marsh Arabs, and brought the world’s attention to their plight.
I have been working as a wetlands ecologist for over 20 years, and am very interested in indigenous cultures and the connection “healing the people, healing the land”. It had never occurred to me to work in the Middle East. Destiny intervened. I came to admire and respect Iraqi people through working on the Eden Again Project, being involved internationally, and conducting interviews with ex-patriot Iraqi’s in the San Diego area. People said how much they loved the al Ahwar marshes, wanting to see them restored and to go home to the marshes and their lives there. They spoke of the brutality of Saddam Hussein, and the genocide and ecocide conducted against them and the marshes. The women I met were well-educated, strong, vocal, responsible for their families well-being, and the health of their communities. Above all I noticed the good humor, wonderful sense of hospitality and generocity, and kindness of the Iraqi people I met.
For the past seven years, I have learned everything I can about the al Ahwar marshes and the people of the region. It was my dream to ride in a mashoof in the marshes, and hear the songs and poetry of the marshes as light glinted off the water. By Wed of next week, that dream will come true.
In January, I was invited by my colleague Dr. Hamid Ahmed and other scientists from the University of Basrah to come to the conference on the marshes in April. Friday morning I leave for Kuwait, and will arrive at o-God early o’clock in the morning. Sunday I will meet with my friend Dr. Faiza al Yamani and staff at the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research to speak with them about my research in the marshes. Then the journey begins!! Stay tuned – to hear about the conference on rehabilitation of the marshes and the people of southern Iraq, and my personal experience in the al Ahwar marshes. Incha Allah.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Iraqi scientists and the participants in
The Third Scientific Conference on the Rehabilitation of Southern Iraqi Marshes

Appeal to save the Mesopotamian marshes

History has recorded the honourable stand of many individuals, international organizations, and the sentiment of the world in denouncing the crime of marshes desiccation during the 1990s and onwards. Iraqi scientists respect and highly appreciate that stand, and consider it as the foundation stone from which to build the rehabilitation of the marshes and to save its people and biota.
The desiccation of the marshlands led to catastrophic consequences for the ecological and cultural heritage of the region. These consequences include the following: large numbers of plant and animal species disappeared; the biodiversity has been reduced drastically; migratory birds have ceased coming to the marshes for their natural breeding and wintering habitat; air temperatures have increased in the surrounding areas; and air quality has become hazardous to human health due to high levels of particulates and other toxics. Most important of all is the loss of the long lasting eco-cultural heritage of the Mesopotamian marshes.
During 2003, the Iraqi people began rejuvenating their beloved marshes, and coming home to the lives that they and their families had lived for many generations. They were assisted by several organizations and governments to restore the marshes, and soon after almost 70% of the marshlands were successfully rehabilitated. (Should credit be given to the Iraqi government also? The Minister of Environment, etc?) Unfortunately, rehabilitation of the marshes did not proceed as it was hoped for and the environment began to deteriorate again owing to regional drought and reduction of water supply from neighboring countries.
The scientists and researchers gathered in the 3rd International Conference on the Rehabilitation of the Iraqi Southern Marshes appeal to governments of the neighboring countries and international societies to help by insuring and assigning a specific share of water for the Iraqi Mesopotamian marshes. For thousands of years the cultures and ecosystem of the al Ahwar marshes have flourished and been sustained through life giving waters; we request enough water to restore and preserve the biodiversity and long lasting cultural heritage of this region. enough to restore and preserve its biodiversity and long lasting cultural heritage.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes, Iraq

Title: Case study: Cultural and ecological restoration of the al-Ahwar wetlands, Iraq

Author: Dr. Michelle L. Stevens, California State University at Sacramento, Environmental Studies Department, Amador Hall 555B, 6000 J Street, Sacramento, CA 95819

This chapter chronicles the ecological restoration and cultural revitalization of the al Ahwar or Mesopotamian marshlands, which constitute the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and Western Eurasia. After the cultural and ecological devastation that occurred in the 1990’s under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, the Iraqi people released water into the desiccated marshes.

Since 2002, extant marshes have expanded by close to 58 percent, with vegetation increasing at a rate of 800 km2 per year. Thousands of birds have been recorded in the last year; 75 of the 80 recorded species of birds returned to the marshes, including some of the rare species that haven’t been seen for over 40 years.

The marshes are a culturalized landscape, with the Marsh Arabs or Madan living in and traditionally managing the marsh ecosystem for over 5,000 years. Refugees are returning to the marshes from internal displacement in Iraq, or from exile in Iran. As the 2002-2003 project manager of the Eden Again project, I interviewed Iraqi expatriates before the Iraq War, recording their longing to return to the marshes, in “mashhuf paddled silently in the golden light of dawn”.

Throughout the past five years, I have been in touch with Iraqi scientists, marsh dwellers, and members of the international community working to study and restore the marshes. In this presentation, I will include interviews with people involved in restoration and monitoring of the marshes from before the Iraq war to present: this provides a human perspective on the condition of the al Ahwar marshes, and will give voice and credibility to cultural memories and sense of place. Understanding the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the Marsh Dwellers, and including this knowledge in marsh restoration, will help to support conservation biology, ecological restoration and sustainable development.

This blog will include a commentary on my April 11-18, 2009, trip to the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research in Kuwait and the 3rd Annual Conference on the Rehabilitation of the Southern Iraqi Marshes in Basrah, Iraq. After being the first project manager of the Eden Again Project in 2002, I have developed a great respect for and admiration of the Iraqi scientists and Marsh Dwellers, and am very honored to be able to finally meet the people I have heard such wonderful things about.

Keywords: Eco-cultural restoration, Mesopotamian Marshes, Marsh Dwellers, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Iraq