Brian Helmuth sat in a wide canoe, motoring through muddy waters in the Dhi Qar governorate of Iraq. Tall reeds arched overhead, creating a maze of narrow tunnels through the marsh. His guide, steering from the motor at the back of the brightly painted vessel, sang a traditional song of the Marsh Arabs—people who have lived in the marshlands of southern Iraq for thousands of years.
Helmuth, a professor of marine and environmental science at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, was visiting one of the remaining fragments of marshland that had historically stretched over 7,000 square miles around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The area, at the southern end of Mesopotamia, is believed by some scholars to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, and the Marsh Arabs who live there are thought to be the closest living descendants of the ancient Sumerians.
“It’s like you’re a millenia away from the rest of the world,” he said, describing his visit in 2018, part of a growing collaboration between researchers at Northeastern and the University of Basrah in Iraq.
The partnership was originally created to help the Iraqis restore their marshes, but it has grown into something larger and more meaningful for both groups.
The marshes began shrinking in the 1950s, when sections were drained for farmland or carved into canals. In the early 1990s, in a vicious campaign to root out rebels hiding in the marshes, Iraq’s then-president Saddam Hussein diverted the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and burned and poisoned the land. While some efforts have been made to restore them, researchers estimate that less than 20 percent of the marshes remain.
“Here are these amazing natural resources, and a whole 5,000-year culture that depends on them, just disappearing,” Helmuth said.
An unexpected friendship
Helmuth first met Nadia Fawzi, a marine science professor at the University of Basrah, in 2011. At the time, the United States was withdrawing the last of its troops from Iraq, after eight years of armed conflict. Fawzi had traveled to the United States to find collaborators to help restore the marshes. Helmuth described their first meeting as formal and somewhat vague, but the story of the marshes captivated him. When she invited him to come to Iraq, he agreed.
“We are so lucky that we met Brian,” Fawzi said. When he visited in 2012, she told him that most organizations are interested only in helping with brief projects. Then they just disappear. “He said, and I remember exactly, ‘I will commit to this relationship, and I will develop it.’”
The partnership was an opportunity to help the Iraqi researchers break back into the international scientific community. The University of Basrah hosts the country’s only marine science program, and while the researchers were well-trained, decades of violence and instability in the region had left them cut off from resources and opportunities. Fawzi recalled doing field work in the 1980s between bombardments during the Iran-Iraq war, and the more recent difficulties of monitoring the ecosystem when unsupervised equipment was likely to be stolen. Even gaining access to academic papers was a challenge.
Helmuth and Fawzi began planning a conference in Iraq to bring international attention to the marshes and put Iraqi science back on the map. But the growing threats from Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the U.S. airstrikes against them made travel unsafe. Helmuth and Fawzi canceled the conference and delayed plans for Helmuth’s return. Despite the strained relationship between their countries, including a 2017 executive order from President Trump banning Iraqi citizens from entering the United States, the researchers stayed in contact.
“What happened over these five years was that people became friends,” Helmuth said. “I’d try to get them literature, email them things. We sent them some equipment. Even if I couldn’t go over there, we were trying to keep the collaboration going.”
Finally, in 2018, Helmuth was able to return to Iraq and visit the best-preserved section of the marshes, which had been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization two years earlier. And more importantly, two researchers from the University of Basrah were able to visit Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant as part of a program funded by the United States Agency for International Development.
Visitors from Basra
Jihad Alzewar arrived in Boston last October. Abdul Amer Jassim, whose travel plans were delayed when the U.S. consulate closed because of a bombing in early September, joined him a week later.
“We’re trying to make a connection between the information and the experiments here and translate it to our own environment,” said Jassim, who is the head of the marine biotechnology laboratory at the University of Basrah.
In a whirlwind two weeks, the two scientists learned to extract and preserve DNA samples, built sensors to take environmental measurements, and designed experiments to monitor specific species as indicators of environmental health. They also attended a series of seminars led by scientists at the Marine Science Center and the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, many of which were recorded or live-streamed for other faculty in Basra.
“We want to give them information, not tell them how to do things,” said Dan Distel, who is the director of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center. “They’re perfectly capable of that themselves.”
Distel, along with Helmuth and others, have proposed setting up a collection of DNA samples at the University of Basrah to preserve the unique biodiversity found in the marshes. Distel also hopes to help Jassim add genetic analysis to the Iraqi’s description a little-known species of parasitic barnacle.
“Long term, I’d really like to see us exchanging students,” Helmuth said. “I’m serving on some of their students’ dissertation committees. I’d love to see them collaborating with our students here.”
One step forward and two steps back
The water problems in southern Iraq are getting worse.
Drought, climate change, and dams upriver in Syria and Turkey have further reduced the amount of water flowing down to the marshes. This decreased flow is allowing salt water from the Persian Gulf to creep up to the marshes through the Shatt al-Arab river, which links the Tigris and Euphrates to the Gulf and is the main source of water for Basra. Salinity is rising in the marshes and the water in Basra is now too salty (and too polluted) to drink.
“A lot of people have died due to violence because of the lack of potable water. Dysentery is now running rampant,” Helmuth said. “And ecologically, there are all these species marching up into the Shatt al-Arab at the same time as the marshes are drying up.”
The Iraqi government is looking to Fawzi and her colleagues for a plan to deal with the water crisis in Basra. They’ve had to put some of the marsh work on hold. Helmuth is doing his best to support them, having Northeastern students search for historical data and potential solutions, and connecting the Iraqis with faculty in civil and environmental engineering.
The current problems in Basra are tangled up in thousands of years of politics and culture in the region. Fixing them is a slow, and often messy, process. But environmental progress typically is, Helmuth said.
“I think we all go into these situations expecting that we’re going to make this huge change all at once. That we’ll run in, deliver western knowledge, fix everything, and then leave,” Helmuth said. “But all this stuff is really incremental. You don’t start making the big changes until you’ve invested that time and energy in getting to know somebody and establishing mutual respect.”
Fawzi agreed. “Building this relationship has really made a huge difference,” she said. “It’s bringing Iraq to the map, to the scientific world.”