The Disappearing Marshlands of Mesopotamia

A continuation of his long-term documentation of the water crisis in the Fertile Crescent, Mathias Depardon’s Tales From the Land in Between explores how the depletion of the Iraqi marshes is changing the daily lives of the millions of people living around them.

© Mathias Depardon, from the series Tales From the Land in Between.

Photojournalist Mathias Depardon started to work on the water crisis in Eastern Turkey when investigating the controversial Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP) - a series of dams congesting the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Besides the many cities and ecosystems along the rivers on the brink of vanishing in Turkey - among which the spectacular ancient town of Hasankeyf - the impact of GAP expands beyond Turkish territory, to neighbouring Iraq and Syria. Tales From the Land in Between focuses on a unique Mesopotamian wonder, the Iraqi marshes, once the Garden of Eden and now threatened by the worst drought since 1930.

“At the roots of the reeds emerging from the marshes' water, the mark left by this decrease is clear. In addition to becoming scarcer, the water that flows through lower Mesopotamia is dirtier and more polluted. It is sullied by domestic waste, the toxic products discharged by the petrochemical plants, and by the fish farms that have multiplied to compensate for the disappearance of the fish” journalist Guillaume Perrier, who has been a long-time field partner of Depardon, describes of the scene. “The pollution suffocates the flora and fauna and drives away the bird species. The salinity level is spiralling up. The eggplant bushes have burnt, the bees are dead, not to mention the hecatomb among the palm trees” he adds.

© Mathias Depardon, from the series Tales From the Land in Between.

Depicting this desolation, Depardon’s images are almost monochromatic, filled with burnt grass, fires, barely floating wooden boats, and the earth-colour clothes that the few remaining inhabitants of the marshes wrap themselves with. Some shots emphasise the striking contrast between the needs and the reality – looking with despair at a tiny pond of water, a group of farmers are surrounded with a flock of sheep so large they could not quench their thirst. More than in his previous reportages, most of the portraits Depardon shot in Iraq are posed, as if people were here, standing for their rights, waiting for a solution to be found before it’s too late.

Along with environmental and social risks, the geopolitical impact of the dam is at stake. “This water crisis is not only a result of climate change; it is also caused by the mismanagement of resources by the Iraqi government; two decades of war in the region, and the construction of dams upstream in Turkey, which should be the object of a clear water-sharing agreement with Iraq and Syria”, Depardon explains. The dependence of Iraq on the two rivers enclosing the region, increased with the effect of climate change, have turned the Turkish land and water development project into a major challenge of international cooperation. If no solution is found, population displacements are inevitable in the medium-term, which would result in a volatile mix of Shiite and Sunni communities in Iraq, possibly setting off a regional conflict.

© Mathias Depardon, from the series Tales From the Land in Between.

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Mathias Depardon is a French photojournalist whose immersive process and slower approach to journalism allow for comprehensive bodies of work that reveal and frame important social, economic, and political issues in territories under tension where he questions the idea of identity and territory. Follow him on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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