Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

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Iraqi marsh-dwellers navigate their canoes in the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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Abu Hayder, an Iraqi ecotourism guide, navigates a canoe in the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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Abu Hayder, an Iraqi ecotourism guide, poses for a picture with his wife in the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)
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Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 22 May 2019

Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.




Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.




This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.




An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.




An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.


Saudi photographer reveals unfamiliar tourist sites in the south of the Kingdom

Hassan Haroobi says photography depends on the visions and perception of a photographer. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 29 September 2020

Saudi photographer reveals unfamiliar tourist sites in the south of the Kingdom

  • Hassan Haroobi calls for investing in photography to develop visual culture
  • Nature is a divine beauty that encourages creativity and photography

MAKKAH: Hassan Haroobi began taking photographs in 2013, having had a “passion for photography” since his childhood.

“I got my first camera in 2013 and the regions which I took photos of reflect the beauty of the southern region of our beloved Kingdom, especially in the Harub province in eastern Jazan, 110 kilometers away from the city,” he told Arab News.

He has taken many distinguished photos since starting out, including one of a giant moon, and the famous photo of the student that lately circulated on social media. “Nature is a divine beauty that encourages creativity and photography,” he sphaid.

Any person who loves photography seeks to capture everlasting photos to show nature to the whole world, be it plants, animals, seas, soil, water, or air, he said.

“This is why nature is like a treasure granted by God for humans to benefit, and nature is our source of living,” said Haroobi.

He added: “It is from nature that people get natural resources to procure all their needs. It is from nature that they take materials they use in their daily life. This is why life is like a big store for whatever the human needs to live, starting from his food, and ending with things that he produces and uses. The human is an important part of nature and is an extension to it.”

The first thing a photographer needs to think of before going out to take pictures is “what is the best moment to take an extraordinary picture?” he said.

“This is something that some people consider trivial, for we can take photos anytime we want. Yes, this does not contradict reality; however everything has its suitable moments so that it would be done in the best way,” he added.

FASTFACTS

• Hassan Haroobi began taking photographs in 2013.

• He has taken many distinguished photos since starting out, including one of a giant moon, and the famous photo of the student that lately circulated on social media.

• Haroobi considers sunrise or sunset the perfect time for photography.

He noted that photography was a widespread art. Professional photographers, or those aiming to become one, should be organized in everything they do, he said, from planning the location, preparing the camera, and ensuring enough and suitable equipment for every photo session.

As for the best time to take photos, Haroobi said the “golden hour” before sunrise or sunset is perfect, especially with for portraits and landscapes with smooth, easily controlled light.

Photography in Saudi Arabia has become available to everyone through modern mobile devices, and anybody can become a professional photographer, he said.

“Photography does not depend on the type of camera; it primarily depends on the vision and perception of the photographer on how he takes the picture, what he will focus on, and how he will shed light on a certain part while discarding other less important parts,” he said.

He pointed out that taking into consideration the basic conditions of photography rather than the camera itself would turn a picture from an ordinary one to a professional one.

“Although using a professional camera would render the photo more brilliant and professional, it would not alone produce the beauty, for it could give worse results than the mobile if the user ignores photography techniques,” said Haroobi. “Because mobiles and simple cameras are designed to make autocorrections, and it is exactly like in painting where skills lie in the painter and not the pen.”

He advised photographers of both genders not to go out and take pictures during rainy days and storms, especially in mountains, for the southern regions of the Kingdom witness difficult and possibly dangerous conditions.

The photographer also called on increasing investment in the art of photography by organizing competitions for the most beautiful pictures.