Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mobile Schools Set up for Marsh Arabs

Plastic buildings offer a novel solution for schooling in the wetlands - but they may remain empty as many parents cannot afford to let children stop work and come to classes.
By Hazim al-Sharaa

Amid the reed- and mud-built houses in the Iraqi marshlands of Nahr al-Ezz, shiny new metal and plastic buildings have sprung up to serve as temporary schools.


The aim of these movable buildings is to entice displaced residents of the marshes of south-eastern Iraq to return home.


But some local residents are sceptical. “What will schools give us?” asked Abdul Zahra Sewadi, 35, who was drying cow dung for fuel.


“Give me a job and a suitable house, and I will give you doctors and engineers. The important thing is to feed my family. It’s only for propaganda that they say we have schools in the marshes.”


Officials say the schools are part of an effort to undo damage done by the former regime of Saddam Hussein.


The vast marshes at the lower end of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were drained by Saddam’s regime in the Nineties to deprive Shia rebels of potential hiding places.


Saddam’s men diverted up to 95 per cent of the 12,000 square miles of marshland waters into a massive network of canals, artificial rivers, and pipelines for desert irrigation.


Many marsh residents were also driven out by the closure of public services such as schools.


Things began changing after the fall of Saddam’s regime, as many dams were breached and pumping stations destroyed, and the marshland’s waters began to flow again.


Government officials say the next step is to restore public services to encourage the return of local residents who fled to urban areas on the edges of the marshes.


“In attempt to bring back those who left, the ministry of education decided to install ten movable schools in the marshes of Amara, as a first stage,” said Hassanein Fadel Muaal, director of school buildings.


The new schools each contain six classrooms for 30 students and a room for administration.


The schools are intended to be only temporary until the water levels of the marshes are fully restored. “It’s not useful to build [permanent] schools, because the water will reach them and they will be submerged,” said Muaal.


“Movable schools can be installed in one week, and they can be disassembled in two days,” said Nameer Warid Hassen, 40, Engineering Director at the General Directorate for School Buildings. “Normal schools need much longer.”


Hassen points out that the movable school design needs no maintenance, as it is made of durable plastic and aluminum. “Even if it sinks, we can disassemble it and move it to another place without damage,” he said.


One problem the ministry of education admits it cannot solve yet is the shortage of pupils, largely because many people cannot afford to send their children to school.


Families need their sons, especially, to help them get by.


“I have five sons of school age but they work to meet the family’s needs,” said Abdallah Najim, 48, a local resident. “I see an uncertain future for them. They don’t know how to read or write. But what can I do? Their wages barely keep us alive.”


Muaal said that for the moment, his ministry cannot support students financially because it is concentrating on providing schools and text books.


“We intend to provide financial aid to our students, especially for those living in the marshes, because of what they suffered under the former regime,” he said.


But right now, he said, the emphasis is on putting the mobile schools in place, with permanent schools to be constructed later.


Hazim al-Shara is an IWPR trainee in Iraq.