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Death in the marshes: environmental calamity hits Iraq’s unique wetlands

Original publication by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for on 29 January 2023

Rivers and lakes that have nurtured communities since civilisation’s dawn are drying up, as drought leads to hunger, displacement and simmering conflict

Buffalos in the water of the Toos River, Iraq.
Photo by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Small gangs of buffaloes sat submerged in green and muddy waters. Their back ridges rose over the surface like a chain of black islets, spanning the Toos River, a tributary of the Tigris that flows into the Huwaiza marshes in southern Iraq.

With their melancholic eyes, they gazed with defiance at an approaching boat, refusing to budge. Only when the boatman shrieked “heyy, heyy, heyy” did one or two reluctantly raise their haunches. Towering over the boat, they moved a few steps away, giving the boatmen barely enough space to steer between a cluster of large, curved horns.

On the right bank of the river stood a cultural centre built in the traditional style of southern Iraq, with tall arches made of thick bundles of reed tied together. It catered to a large number of Iraqi tourists and a handful of foreigners who have flocked to visit the marshland region since it was named a Unesco world heritage site in 2016.

A couple of hundred metres past the cultural centre, however, the engine of the boat sputtered, and its bottom scrapped against the mud as the river dwindled into a shallow swamp, where small herons and grebes stood in water barely reaching halfway up their stick-like legs.

The foliage on the two banks also disappeared, revealing a devastating scene: what two years earlier was a great expanse of blue water, a lagoon teeming with wildlife, fish, and home to large herds of water buffaloes, had turned into a flat desert where a few thorny shrubs sprouted.

Under the scorching sun, the hot wind kicked tumbleweed across parched yellow earth, scarred with deep cracks and crumbling into thin dust under the feet. Rising above the ground were mounds of dead reed beds upon which the marsh dwellers had built their homes. A few relics of their former life lay scattered around: broken plastic buckets, some rusting metal pipe, and a kettle.

The Huwaiza marsh, once teeming with wildlife, has dried up.
Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

The ruin of nearly 3,000 sq km (1,000 sq miles) of this unique ecosystem is a small example of the unprecedented environmental disaster unfolding in Iraq. Rivers and lakes that had spawned farming communities since the dawn of civilisation are drying up, the country’s water reserves reduced by half, while the Iraqi ministry of water resources estimates that one-quarter of Iraq’s fresh water will be lost in the next decade.

In the province of Mosul and surrounding areas, considered Iraq’s bread basket, two consecutive drought seasons have turned large swaths of wheat and barley fields into arid lands, leading to the loss of nearly 90% of the most recent harvest. Officials believe that will continue to the next season.

After canals and rivers went dry, farmers began digging boreholes, but the unregulated use of underground water is causing a severe drop in the quality and water levels. In the southern region of Samawa, the illegal digging of boreholes has led to the total disappearance of Lake Sawa.

Meanwhile, freak sandstorms battering cities and eroding the soil have become a recurrent event owing to the drought and loss of vegetation coverage – 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) are lost to desertification each year.

The drought is leading to the displacement of tens of thousands of people, pushing farmers to abandon their lands and move into the margins of big cities, settling in shanties on their outskirts, straining an already crumbling infrastructure and causing further destruction of agricultural lands and desertification. And in a country with a fragile security situation, rife with heavily armed militias and awash with an abundance of weapons, the competition over water, and the unregulated digging of boreholes, is creating local feuds that threaten to spill into larger conflicts.

The causes for these environmental disasters are multiple and interlinked: rising temperatures, record low rainfalls due to the climate crisis; the drastic reduction of the amount of water reaching Iraq from upstream countries, with Turkey’s extensive dam networks on the Tigris and Euphrates cutting Iraq’s share by 60%, while nearby Iran has diverted tributaries and other rivers. The temperature rise is also causing an increase in water evaporation, contributing to the depletion of reservoirs.

It used to be possible to navigate a network of rivers, canals and lagoons right across the plains of southern Iraq.
Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

According to the GEO-6 report issued by the UN Environment Programme, Iraq is classified as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to decreased water and food availability and extreme temperatures. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, average temperatures will increase by 2C and rainfall will decrease by 9%.

Iraq’s population, which is entirely dependent on the Tigris and Euphrates along with other smaller rivers for irrigation, drinking and sanitation, has nearly doubled in the past two decades. Still, in a country where corruption and mismanagement can turn a dire situation into a catastrophic one, archaic irrigation methods and depleted infrastructure that have seen no investment are wasting and polluting whatever water remains.

‘Traditional prejudice’

“It was on the edge of the marshes that human history in Iraq began.” So wrote the British traveller Wilfred Thesiger, who lived among the marsh Arabs, the Ma’dan, in the 1950s. At that time, it was possible to navigate the network of rivers, canals and lagoons across the plains of southern Iraq, connecting the Tigris marshes in the east to the central marshes of the Euphrates delta in the west.

The unique ecosystem functioned as a microclimate absorbing heat, with temperatures in the marshes up to 4C lower than in neighbouring areas, and the area was home to exceptional biodiversity. Then came industrialisation and mass agriculture, followed by wars, culminating in Saddam Hussein’s onslaught against the marshes in the 1990s, and now the drought.

Throughout these decades, government officials – from the British colonial officer to Saddam’s Republican Guard – saw in the dense marshes and dizzying maze of canals a place of refuge for those opposing central authority, from the African slaves who revolted in the ninth century, to communists and Islamist rebels in modern times, along with droves of military deserters who fled conscription.

That view of the marshes as a dangerous place and home to brigands contributed to the way the city people and countryside farmers looked at and despised the marsh Arabs.

“The impact of climate change is working as a threat magnifier,” said Dr Hassan al Janabi, a former minister for water resources and an environmental expert. “But in essence, this is a man-made disaster, in which the marshes are the clear victims, due to misunderstanding of the unique climate and cultural importance of the region.”

He added: “Its destruction is part of the traditional prejudice of the city towards the countryside, and especially against the marsh people who have always been the victims of discrimination and at the receiving end of insults because they raise buffaloes.

“There are hundreds of illegal rivers diverting water towards the lands of influential people who use them for fish farms or irrigating their lands. We have lost 80% of the buffaloes because of mismanagement.”

Just north of the Toos, which is supposed to feed water into the Huwaiza marsh, a local activist pointed out two large fish ponds and an illegally dug canal that siphons water into nearby agricultural lands, all belonging to a powerful local tribal sheikh. In the past month, even the trickle of water in the Toos had dried.

A ministry in Baghdad determines the allocation of water for irrigation to each province, with agriculture consuming the largest share of water – nearly 65%. The severe drought has led to an increase in competition, in which the interests of weaker communities, such as the marsh dwellers, are sacrificed in the interests of more powerful ones.

“This is a crime that is taking place right in front of our eyes,” said Janabi. “The marshes are the true historical lineage of Mesopotamia but these groups which have lived here for thousands of years see their way of life being eradicated for the benefit of rice cultivators, which in reality has zero economical impact as we import 95% of our rice.”

In the central Chibayish marshes, only small puddles of polluted water remain.
Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

‘Revival has gone’

In the Chibayish, the central marshes in the basin of the Euphrates, the scenes of drought and devastation are repeated. What was once an extensive marshes network has shrunk today to a few isolated ponds of stagnating brackish water, stinking of dead fish and highly polluted, sitting amid large swatches of desert landscape. The long, elegant mashoof boats that once plied these waters now lie on their sides, crusted with salt and dried mud.

On the edge of one of these ponds, Abdul Sattar and his two sons took shelter from the oppressive heat in a small mud room, bare except for two reed mats on the dirt floor. An old air cooler clanked noisily outside the small window, churning in hot air.

The eldest son, a slender young man in his 20s, served tea while Abdul pondered in silence for some time when asked about the impact of drought. When he spoke, the words tumbled fast in a heavy guttural accent. He said that in the past few months dozen of his buffaloes had died, and those that remained were too skinny to be sold. “If I butcher them and sell them as meat, they will fetch more,” he added, pulling at the tattered brim of his stained and muddy dishdasha.

In his 40s, with a gaunt face and bronze-coloured skin, withered and beaten by the harsh Iraqi sun, feet caked in mud and cracked, he looked at anyone coming from the city with suspicion. He said the buffaloes were unable to feed themselves because of the drought and were dependent on whatever fodder he could provide.

“They used to go out and graze for a week or two on the green reeds and other vegetation and only come back when they needed to be milked,” he said. “Now I have to feed them, each needs half a tonne of fodder a week, but I can barely afford half of that. Mothers don’t even produce enough milk to feed their calves.”

He looked at his youngest son across the room, a 12-year-old asleep under a blanket in a feeble attempt to hide from the buzzing flies, and said his family were going hungry so he could feed the buffaloes to keep them alive, barely.

The buffaloes refuse to drink the highly polluted water even when they find small mud pools to wallow in. He pointed towards the jug of brackish yellow water that sat in front of him and said he had to drive to the nearby town to buy the drinking water he shared between his family and his buffaloes.

Once before, the marshes where his clan raised their buffaloes had dried; that was in 1994, after Saddam’s campaign to dry the marshes. He was a young man then and accompanied his family as they moved north, finding shelter on the banks of the Tigris south of Baghdad, and he came back after the toppling of the regime, when reviving the marshes became a political priority. “Reviving the marshes was the only thing we got after the [regime] change, and even that is gone now.”

Outside the mud room, three emaciated-looking buffaloes sat in a small muddy pond. A larger herd stood nearby in the shade of a metal canopy. Abdul said generation after generation his tribe had lived with these buffaloes, so dear to them that they had given them individual names.

“These animals, they mean a lot for us, they are like family. We pain when we see them wither and die in front of our eyes,” he said. “I swear if I knew how to do anything else I would, but me and my father, and his father before him, knew nothing but how to raise buffaloes.”

Selling up and moving out

Agriculture, which generates 3% of Iraq’s GDP, employs nearly one-fifth of its workforce, tethering people to their lands and contributing to maintaining the vegetation coverage needed to lessen the impact of sandstorms, soil erosion and global heating.

However, the drought and subsequent crop failures are pushing thousands of families to abandon their lands – 20,000 since 2021, according to International Organization for Migration estimates – heading instead towards the big cities.

In a small neighbourhood tucked under an overpass north of the city of Basra, Karar lives with his family in a small hut built with concrete blocks. Like his neighbours’, his roof is made of corrugated metal and plastic sheets, pinned down with large rocks and blocks. A deep and wide ditch carries the neighbourhood sewage, where trash and plastic bottles float on a grimy metallic green liquid.

As is the case for many of the farmers of Amara and Nassiriya – who at the best of times constituted the poorest people in Iraq – the drought has turned his hardship into destitution.

He said that a few years ago, he came to realise that farming was dying in his village north of the Huwaiza marsh. Water levels were falling, and he had to use a diesel pump to irrigate his fields. “The money we got, we paid on gas for the water pumps. We were going hungry,” he said.

So he sold the few animals he had – sheep and a few buffaloes – and moved to this neighbourhood, trying to scavenge a living from the margins of Basra’s booming oil-fuelled economy, working as a day labourer.

He said he was fortunate to sell his cattle and move out before the worst of the drought hit the area. “Now, my brothers call me and say we wish we left the land and came with you then because now no one wants to buy our buffaloes because they are too skinny.”

Seeba in southern Iraq, with the Abadan refinery seen in the background.
Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Dead palms and buffaloes

In Seeba, in Iraq’s most southern tip, the environmental disaster takes a different shape. Lying on the western banks of Shatt al-Arab, the waterway formed by the meeting of the Euphrates and Tigris, its fertile orchards and fields had been home to dense palm tree plantations for centuries. Water from Shatt al-Arab flows naturally through its canals, regulated by the high and low tide of the nearby Gulf.

During the war with Iran, Seeba became a frontline and battleground. Trenches were dug, fields of barbed wires were stretched, artillery bombardments and tanks destroyed the palm plantations, and thousands of young Iraqi and Iranian soldiers died there. However, after the end of the war, people came back and started reviving their land and eventually restored many of its palm groves.

“If you came here in the 90s, you wouldn’t be able to see Abadan,” said Ridha, a young farmer from the region, as he pointed at the gleaming towers of the Abadan refinery across the waterway.

Palm plantations have been destroyed by the high salinity of water. 
Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

But things began to change after 2004 when reduced levels of water flowing from the Tigris and Euphrates enabled seawater from the Gulf to intrude deeper and deeper into the Shatt al-Arab, eventually reaching Basra itself for the first time in 2018, which led to mass unrest.

“Since 2009, Seeba has been a disaster zone, and most of our farmlands have disappeared because of the catastrophic rise in water salinity,” an official in the town said.

The exact causes of the drought in the north were reflected here, the official said. From the impact of global heating to Turkey’s reduction of the water volume flowing through the Tigris and Euphrates, Iran’s diversion of tributary rivers such as the Karun, and the discharge of raw sewage and oil industry chemicals into Shatt al-Arab. “Even the upstream provinces are taking Basra’s share of fresh water because of the expansion of their population.”

The high salinity in the water flowing naturally through the irrigation canals is now causing the palm trees to die. “All the water pumps on the riverbanks were cancelled, and farmers are blocking their own canals,” said the official. “Now we get some water pumped from upstream through pipes, or we buy it in trucks. In 2012 the state allocated compensations for the farmers that they have yet to receive 10 years later.”

A proposed mega-desalination project for seawater from the Gulf had been stalled for years, with politicians in Baghdad and Basra accusing each other of receiving kickbacks and commissions. “From a million palm trees in the 1970s, now we have less than 10,000. Farming here is living now by the drip.”

Ridha, tall, lean, moustachioed and wearing a black dishdasha with a red checked kufiya wrapped around his head, pointed at the palm trees in his orchard, each named after the variety of its dates: “Khistawi, barhi, braim …” But most of these precious palm trees died due to the polluted water, losing their tops and long branches, with the top of the trunks bent like a wilting stump.

He motioned towards a canal zigzagging between the dead trees. “The water is killing our palms,” he said. “Back in the 1990s we swam in these rivers, used the water for drinking and cooking, but now farmers are blocking their irrigation canals to prevent the poisonous water from entering their fields. Those who still want to farm have to buy trucks of water, but most are just abandoning the lands and getting a government job with the police or the Hashed [Shia paramilitary units].”

Ridha pointed at another scourge in the area’s environmental disaster, a large herd of buffaloes. As the drought destroyed the marsh habitat to the north, the Ma’dan owners moved their herds here, settling them among the fields and in the now dormant irrigation canals. They have become a real menace to the farmers.

Behind the banks of a wide irrigation canal thick with green waters, and lined with rows of decapitated palm trees, a large group of buffaloes sat submerged in a swamp.

Ridha looked at them and said they were worse than the plague. “They are destroying the land,” he said. “Their owners let them roam freely. They are heavy, and they break the earth, flood the area and turn the farms into swamps. Sometimes they break into orchards and feed on the young palm saplings; no fence can stand against them.”

The environmental collapse exacerbates the old tensions between the well-armed Ma’dan and the farmers. “If the farmers shoot at them or kill a buffalo, the owners will come armed and start a fight, and we can’t fight them,” said Ridha, “and now only the army can save us.”

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