The marsh wetlands supported the traditional lifestyles of an estimated half-million people. The Marsh Arabs, also known as the Ma’dan, lived for centuries away from outside pressure, a unique subculture based on fishing, harvesting reeds, and raising water buffalo. They were mostly isolated as recently as 1967.
In the 1986 image, the wetlands began to be carved out for irrigated agriculture and oil drilling. But the Marsh Arab homeland changed even more when it became a frontline in the Iran-Iraq War.
Military embankments were created at the southern end of the wetlands, affecting mostly the Al Hawizeh marshes. Evidence of those embankments is still present in recent imagery. The intriguing shapes and patterns that resulted are even featured in an Earth As Art image.
In 1988, above normal rainfall briefly made the marsh extent greater than it had been. However, the marshes were about to experience an even greater shock that led to drastic declines in the supply of water.