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Survey on Demographic, Social and Economic Conditions of Marshlands in the South of Iraq


Under the framework of Phase II-A of UNEP Project on “Support for the Environmental management of the Iraqi Marshlands”, UNEP carried out a Survey on Demographic, Social and Economic Conditions of Marshlands in southern Iraq. The survey was conducted to collect and analyze data on the current demographic, social and economic conditions of the villages in the Marshlands, and to establish and update a database. This work was identified as a key priority during consultation with the Iraqi stakeholders, who recognized that developing and implementing a management structure and activities need to be based on objective and current data. With the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works (MMPW), UNEP developed the terms of reference for this work. The fieldwork was carried-out by Thi-Qar University under the overall supervision of UNEP-DTIE-IETC and in consultation with MMPW. A Memorandum of Understanding was concluded between UNEP and Thi-Qar University in April 2007 for this survey.

The survey covered 199 marshland villages in sixteen sub-districts, namely Al-Chibayish, Al-Fihood and Al-Hammar in Thi-Qar governorate, Al-Salam, Al-Meimuna, Al-Majar, Al-Kheir, Al-Adeel and Al-Uzeir in Missan Governorate and Al-Qurna, Al-Theger, Al-Deer, Al-Medeana, Al-Haweer, Telha and Al-Hartha (Germate Ali) in Basrah Governorate. The survey was conducted during June to September 2007 by visiting these villages and conducting interviews and meetings with village representatives using a questionnaire developed for this purpose. The survey collected data on the village location, population, livelihood activities, water sources and sanitation, primary education, primary health services and electricity availability.

Key findings

The total population of the 199 villages surveyed was estimated at 346,291. The median population of a village was 1,100 persons. 47% of villages had less than 1,000 persons, and those having less than 2,000 persons constituted 72% of the total number of villages surveyed.

Villages were classified into “Deep”, “Border” and “Outskirts” in relation to their location within the Marshlands. There were only seven (7) “Deep” villages, which were generally identified with the traditional life in the Marshlands. 59% of the total population lived in the “Border” villages, while 39% of them lived in “Outskirts” villages. The small number of villages classified as “Deep” may be indicative of the slow return to the traditional lifestyle. The results also found a change towards a “country” lifestyle, based more on agriculture in the peripherals of the Marshlands.

In terms of flooding occurrence, 5 villages were situated in permanently flooded areas, and 164 villages were located in areas with either seasonal or occasional flooding. 30 villages were situated in dry areas with no flooding occurrence.

The survey of building materials found that half of the houses were built with clay, while the other half were made of reeds. The average family size was 4.8 persons, and the average household size was 9.1 persons. Generally two or more families of close kinship constituted a household, and shared a house with an average area of 83 square meters (100 square yards).

Livelihood activities in Thi-Qar were limited, with only 72% of the inhabitants engaged in activities such as agriculture, fishing, livestock rearing, handicrafts, small-scale commerce and other activities. In Missan and Basrah, on the other hand, nearly all villagers were found to engage in two livelihood activities on average. In the villages in Missan, major activities were mainly agriculture and livestock rearing, while those in Basrah governorate were engaged in livestock rearing, agriculture, fishing and handicrafts.

The total area cultivated for agriculture was estimated at 213,611 donum (28,580 ha) and the total production of rice, dates, cereal crops, leafy vegetables and pear (Nabk) was estimated at 114,540 ton per year. Cereal crops and rice cultivation were the major agricultural activity in terms of surface area cultivated as well as production volume.

Significant changes in the types of animals reared in the Marshland villages were observed compared to the pre-drying period. The total number of buffaloes, cattle and sheep was estimated at 606,900 with nearly equal distribution among the three animal types. In the pre-drying period, buffaloes were the sole animals reared. Sheep were previously not found in this area, as they are generally reared in ‘dessert or semi-arid” areas. The large number of sheep documented in the survey may signal the consequences of the ecosystem destruction and resultant shift in animal rearing and associated lifestyles in the communities. Such changes defy the traditional proverb in the south of Iraq “A camel with ma’adan,” signifying to the impossibility of rearing dessert animals in the Marshlands.

More than one third of the villages were found to use river or marsh water without treatment for drinking. Only 13% of the villages surveyed had piped water supply, 23% of villages received from tankers, and 38% of villages received desalinated water from reverse osmosis units by special vehicles. The national average of the percentage of Iraqi population having improved access to drinking water sources for rural areas was 50% in 2004 (UNICEF, 2008). In the Marshland villages, approximately 11% of the population, or 13 % of the villages surveyed, with piped supply could be considered to have access to improved drinking water sources in terms of quality and quantity. The Marshland area was thus found to be lagging in access to safe drinking water, compared to the national average. The cost of desalinated water from special vehicles was 20 to 25 Iraqi dinars per 20 L. These water sources were found to be scarce and difficult to access and were not evaluated as reliable. The survey contained only one village, out of six, that has gained access to potable water from the UNEP project through reverse osmosis compact units.

For sanitation, the survey highlighted lagging access and public health concerns. In 61% of the villages, no specific sanitation method was practiced, and the residents used the areas near their houses directly for sanitation. The national average of the percentage of Iraqi population having improved access to sanitation in rural areas was 48% in 2004 (UNICEF, 2008). As more than one third of the villages indicated to use water from the river or marsh for drinking without treatment, the limited access to improved sanitation raises serious public health concerns. Only 39% of the villages used pit latrines, and sewerage was available in 23% of the villages. Sanitation remained as a non-priority among the inhabitants, mainly due to the traditional culture and limited awareness about the importance of proper sanitation in these villages.

The total number of primary schools in the villages was 138, with 1,392 teachers and 29,101 students. These figures translate to 20.9 students per teacher, comparable to the national average of 20.5 in 2006 (World Bank, 2008). While the student-teacher ratio was at the national level, various problems related to access and quality of schools were raised. For example, 40% of the villages did not have a primary school in their village. Additional specific problems expressed by village residents included insufficient school furniture (124 villages), insufficient teaching staff (99 villages), insufficient space in school (96 villages), problem with school buildings (85 villages), long distances to school (58 villages), and inadequate management staff (19 villages).

The health services were found to be in a very critical condition, as there was no health centre in 181 villages, accounting for 91% of the villages surveyed. There were 35 health centres located in 18 of the surveyed villages. There were no medical doctors in these health centres, as doctors were only available in the five hospitals that serve the survey area. These five hospitals were found to have 117 doctors on staff to serve 1,105,686 persons, resulting in 9,500 persons per doctor. The national average as of 2005 was 7 physicians per 10,000 persons, or approximately 1,500 persons per doctor (WHO, 2008), showing that the Marshlands area lagged behind in health care access in Iraq. The distance to the nearest health centre was 1 to 5 km for 56% of the villages, and 6 to 10 km for 31% of the villages. The surveyed village residents identified various problems in accessing health care, including lack of medical specialists (198 villages), lack of medical equipment or unavailability of medication (190 villages), long distance to the health center (147 villages), lack of medical staff (116 villages), limited duty hours (91 villages), problems in buildings (56 villages), and crowded health centres (40 villages).

The survey also found limited power supply. While 176 villages were connected to the national grid, the reliability of this service was found to be limited. The results are consistent with the electricity supply challenges in Iraq in general. The use of private generators was prevalent in 171 villages (86%).

Recommendations for future work

The survey results highlighted the challenging socioeconomic conditions faced by the Marshland residents, in terms of access to water, sanitation, education, and health services. In addition, the survey also found that the ecosystem degradation has resulted in changes in the lifestyles as well as economic activities.

To date, most efforts on the Marshlands restoration have been organized by the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, as well as local authorities, supported by United Nations agencies, bi-lateral aid agencies, and NGOs. While the region faces critical needs and suffers from limited basic service access far below the national average, the actual assistance received so far to implement on-the-ground measures is very small. Inadequate availability of basic services impedes the return of displaced inhabitants who have adopted and are used to the lifestyle in the urban centers. To re-establish communities and livelihoods, additional initiatives to improve access to basic services are recommended.

In addition, most of the support provided to the Marshland areas has concentrated on the water management and environmental aspects. There has been an absence of involvement of institutions related to socio-cultural aspects in the marshland restoration process. Such involvement of the socio-cultural sector needs to be mobilized. In sum, additional attention to, and integration of, the socio-cultural aspects of Marshland rehabilitation is recommended for future interventions in the region. To inform such integration into future initiatives, additional analyses, such as age distribution, gender, fertility rate, educational levels, cultural practices, and social problems, are also recommended. Finally, the survey covered only a representative sample of communities in the three governorates. A similar survey is recommended for the marshland areas not covered in this survey in order to obtain a more comprehensive picture.