I can’t say I was looking forward to starting my Iraq trip last month in Basra. I hadn’t been to the southern Iraqi city in a few years, but traditionally the weather there in June can be miserable. February or March is one thing, but June and July can be quite another. Not only can Basra be hot, but it can also be humid and miserably dusty.
What a surprise it was to spend a week there and find the weather downright pleasant. Certainly, it’s not Maine or California, but on most days the air was pretty clear, and the evenings cool and breezy.
The weather was a topic many Basrawis loved to discuss, especially when the alternative is more contentious issues relating to sectarianism or the tragedy of terrorism. While some Basrawis say that this year and last have simply been cooler, others credit the restoration of Iraq’s marshes. Truth be told, the United States can only claim indirect credit for the marshes’ return. True to the character of USAID, there was hemming and hawing and a lot of meetings and conferences studying whether to restore the marshes (as farmers had begun to cultivate the drained land) and how best to go about it. In some cases, former marsh dwellers finally took matters into their own hands to break the dykes. One Iraqi—Azzam Alwash—also did yeoman’s work to restore the marshes.
I remember my first visit to the marshes in 2003, shortly after Iraq’s liberation and soon after the first marshes were re-flooded. I drove from Nasiriyah—near biblical Ur—eastward toward the marshes. It was hot and dusty, but soon after we passed Islah, the air cleared and it felt about ten degrees cooler: The wind off the marshes was like natural air conditioning. Perhaps Basra now is experiencing the same phenomenon: winds blowing from the north pass over the marshes and bring cooler air. That they pass over water and lush land rather than dusty fields also improves air quality. The benefit may be indirect, and Basra still has a long way to go, but it used to be the cultural capital of the Persian Gulf, and locals view the return of their former environment as a sign that Basra once again can reclaim its former glory.