The marshes of Iraq perish with thirst... and the accusation is Iran

The marshes of Iraq perish with thirst… and the accusation is Iran

46% of the water bodies have dried up… and the FAO warns

Hashem was forced to travel ten kilometers across arid lands in southern Iraq, to ​​obtain water and fodder for his buffaloes and to protect them from destruction, due to a drought that hit the marshes after they were for thousands of years as plentiful as the abundance of water in them.

Today, very large areas of water have disappeared from the Al-Hawiza Marsh on the border with Iran, and the Al-Chbayish Marsh, which is a tourist destination to the south, and these swamps have turned into dry cracked land, among which yellow bushes emerged.

The reason is drought and the almost complete absence of rain during the last three years, but also the low level of water flowing from rivers that originate in the neighboring countries of Iran and Turkey, forcing Baghdad to ration the use of its reserves.

Hashem Kased (35 years old) lives in a poor village near the Hawizeh Marsh. “The drought has affected us very much, both humans and animals,” he says.

In this area, all that remains of the Umm al-Naaj Marsh are muddy pools here and there, and dry lines of streams that descended through the swamps of the once fertile marshlands, which were included on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) in 2016. .

Like his father before, Hashem works as a buffalo breeder. He recounts: “We used to live in the marshes. We fish, and the animals drink the water and graze among the reeds.”

Today, the Hashem family has only five buffaloes out of more than thirty heads it owned, as a result of the death of some of them, and the sale of others during the past few years to cover the family’s expenses. Exhausted animals, malnourished, will not be able to extricate themselves.

The marshes experienced previous years of strong drought before they were irrigated by the heavy rains, but between 2020 and 2022, the water level and humidity decreased in 41 percent of the area of ​​the marshes in southern Iraq, including Al-Hawizeh and Al-Jabayish, while water bodies dried up in 46 in 100 percent of the area of ​​the marshes, according to a survey conducted by the Dutch NGO “Pax” based on satellite images.

In light of the sharp decline in the waters of the marshes, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sounded the alarm, warning in a report published in mid-July that the marshes are “one of the poorest areas in Iraq and one of the areas most affected by climate change and water shortages.” And she pointed to “the catastrophic effects on the livelihoods of more than six thousand rural families, as they lost their buffaloes, which are their only source of livelihood.”

Environmental activist Ahmed Saleh Nehme, 40, who lives in the neighboring city of Al-Amarah, says, “The drought has completely destroyed biodiversity. There are no fish or animals such as dogs, wild boars or birds.”

On its website, UNESCO states that the marshes are home to “multiple species of endangered animals”, “one of the largest wintering stops” for ducks and a “key stopping site” for about two hundred species of migratory birds.

According to activist Ahmed Saleh, the Al-Hawizeh Marsh is mainly nourished by two tributaries of the Tigris River, which originates in Turkey. However, the authorities legalized their flow as part of a government plan to rationalize the use of water to meet all the country’s needs.

“The government wants to conserve as much water as possible to protect its strategic reserves,” Saleh says. But at the same time, he criticizes the “wrong management of the water file” and the “unfair division of water.” Under the pressure of the demonstrations, the authorities partially opened the flow of water before stopping it again, according to Saleh.

From the Iranian side, these marshes, which are called “Hawr Al-Azim”, also suffer from receding water. Half of the Iranian part has dried up, as recently reported by the official Iranian news agency (IRNA).

He blames the Director-General of the National Center for Water Resources Management Hatem Hamid, neighboring Iran, for the crisis. He says that “the main feeding of the Al-Hawizeh Marsh is from the Iranian side, but the river has been completely cut off for more than a year.”

The official added that the water needs of agricultural activities and the marshes are only partially covered in light of water rationing from the Iraqi side as well, while among the priorities there is the need to secure drinking water.

The official explains that “the agricultural sector and the marshes are the most affected by the scarcity of water, because they are the two largest consumers of water.”

With temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius, it also refers to the “high evaporation that occurs in the marshes” and cannot be compensated for by the available water.

He added, “We cannot secure 100 percent (water) for agriculture, or 100 percent for the marshes.”

For his part, Hussein Al-Kilani, Director General of the Center for the Revitalization of the Marshes, says that there is a program this year to expand, deepen and rehabilitate the waterways and rivers that irrigate the marshes, explaining that this helped reduce the migration of buffalo breeders and their concentration on the banks of rivers feeding the marshes.

The marshes extend between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia, and some describe them as “Gardens of Eden on Earth”.

But this land rich in life, was subjected to frequent droughts and suffering during the rule of the former regime. In order to suppress opponents who took them as refuge, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s. Since then, its wet areas have almost halved.

In the Chabayish marshes, Ali Jawad (20 years) sums up the current conditions by saying, “Before, when we entered the marshes, we saw green spaces, water and inner peace… now a desert.”

Dozens of families have left the place, he says, “in search of places with water.”

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