Until the 1970s, the marshlands (al-ahwar) of Mesopotamia, in Southern Iraq, had covered an area of up to 20,000 square kilometers around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. Together, these wetlands formed a series of interconnected permanent marshes and lakes covering an area of some 8,800 square kilometers, extending to some 20,000 kilometers when large tracts of dry or desert land were seasonally inundated.
The marshlands were once home to several hundred thousand inhabitants, the Ma'dan, a people whose unique way of life had been preserved for over 5,000 years. The Ma'dan consist of a number of different Shi'a tribes, including the Bani Asad, Bani Tamim, Albu-Hassan, Albu-Muhammad, and Bani Lam. Estimates of population size have varied largely due to the paucity of official government data and the relative inaccessibility of the region, which left sections of the Ma'dan population unaccounted for in population censuses. One anthropological study put their number at 400,000 in the 1950s. Economic migration between the 1960s and the 1980s had reduced the population to an estimated 250,000 by 1991. In 1993, Human Rights Watch estimated the rural population of the marshlands to be around 200,000, which took into account the huge numbers of army deserters and political opponents seeking shelter in the region after 1991. Today, there may be as few as 20,000 of the original inhabitants remaining, the rest having fled or migrated to Iran and elsewhere, while an estimated minimum of 100,000 have become internally displaced in Iraq.
Until the 1950s, the traditional subsistence lifestyle of the Ma'dan had hardly been disturbed. As recently as the 1990s, they were still using marsh reeds to construct delicately arched dwellings on artificial islands and waterways. They lived on fish and water buffalo that lived in the marshes and exported the surplus to other parts of Iraq.
Their largely self-sufficient economy, structured around the aquatic environment, was based on the traditional occupations of fishing, cultivation, buffalo breeding, and reed gathering (from which a cane handicrafts industry evolved). The marshes began to decline in the 1950s as dam-building in Syria and Turkey attenuated the river flows, but the process accelerated dramatically in the 1990s after the Persian Gulf War, when Hussein built giant canals and drains nearby. Migration to urban centers, whether for permanent or seasonal work, accounted also for much of the reduction in the size of the indigenous population up to the late 1980s, when the government policies targeting the Marsh Arabs dramatically increased the pace of depopulation.
Under the joint pressure of political neglect and modernization, it is now estimated that about 95 percent of the original marshland has become a crusty wasteland.
Administratively, the marshlands cut across three of Iraq's eighteen provinces: Misan (originally al-`Amara), Dhi Qar (originally al-Nasiriyya), and Basra. Geographically, the heartland of the marshes comprised three principal areas: a) the al-Hammar Marshes, located south of the Euphrates between al-Nasiriyya and Basra; b) the Central Marshes, located between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in a triangular area bounded by al-Nasiriyya, al-Qurna, and Qal'at Salih, with a section further north around the city of al-`Amara (commonly known as the al-`Amara Marshes); and c) the al-Huwaizah Marshes, located east of the Tigris and extending into Iran (where they are known as the al-Azim Marshes).