About the exhibition

With a backpack, a camera, and two rolls of film, he spent three days in the marshes in Southern Iraq in spring 1978. The young Peter Månsson had dreamed about this visit ever since he read the book The Marsh Arabs.

The photos show the past, but the exhibition takes the long view in describing this new World Heritage Site, and the area's journey from hope and belief in the future to unrest and exodus, as well as its complete dependence on water.


The unique natural environment of the marshes and how humans use it is completely dependent on the influx of water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. In history, the massive water flow from the rivers have formed the basis of many countries and have been shared among different users. Dams upstream have always affected, sometimes threatened, the water access in the marshes.

Planning of large water canals and dams upstream, began in the 1950s, to reclaim land for agriculture and as protection against flooding. Peter Månsson's photos are taken during a time of growing financial prosperity and confidence in the future of the marshland. The new arable land was reclaimed through small-scale drainage. At the same time, the infrastructure developed, and village schools, as well as health clinics, were built.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, the area was ravaged by war and uprisings. To get total control, the Iraqi authorities made the decision to do a wide-ranging drainage of the marshes. The drainage and terror forced the main part of the 400,000 inhabitants of the marshes to flee the area. When Saddam fell in 2003, the area of the marshes was only about 10% of the area in the 1970s. Dams were demolished, and the water returned. As did vegetation and animals, and today it is estimated that the up to 65% of the area of the seventies is recovered.

Today, families with roots in the marshes are mainly living on the outskirts of the area. A large resettlement to the inner areas of the marshes and a return to a more traditional way of life is seen as unlikely. The former self-sufficient households, based on craftsmanship, water buffalos, fishing, hunting, and small-scale agriculture, is challenged by the opportunities for paid employment as well as the access to schools and healthcare in the urban areas. Since it became a World Heritage Site in 2016, the area has a management plan, which also encompasses the cultural history values of the marshes and the inhabitants' use of the resources. Though agreements must be made, regulating the neighbouring countries' use of the upstream areas, only then will Iraq have the prerequisites to secure water access in the marshes by its own decisions.