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Climate ChangeAfter Comeback, Southern Iraq’s Marshes Are Now Drying Up

After Comeback, Southern Iraq’s Marshes Are Now Drying Up

Three years ago, the vast marshlands of southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province were flourishing. Fishermen glided in punts across swathes of still water between vast reed beds, while buffalo bathed amid green vegetation. But today those wetlands, a part of the vast Mesopotamian Marshes, have shriveled to narrow channels of polluted water bordered by cracked and salty earth. Lots of of desiccated fish dot stream banks, together with the carcasses of water buffalo poisoned by saline water. Drought has parched tens of 1000’s of hectares of fields and orchards, and villages are emptying as farmers abandon their land.

For his or her biodiversity and cultural significance, the United Nations in 2016 named the Mesopotamian Marshes — which historically stretched between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometers within the floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The marshes comprised considered one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, a startling oasis in an especially hot and arid environment, home to 22 globally endangered species and 66 at-risk bird species.

But now this ecosystem — which incorporates alluvial salt marshes, swamps, and freshwater lakes — is collapsing attributable to a mixture of things meteorological, hydrological, and political. Rivers are rapidly shrinking, and agricultural soil that after grew bounties of barley and wheat, pomegranates, and dates is blowing away. The environmental disaster is harming wildlife and driving tens of 1000’s of Marsh Arabs, who’ve occupied this area for five,000 years, to hunt livelihoods elsewhere.

“The situation within the marshes now could be worse than when Saddam was attempting to destroy them,” an Iraqi water engineer says.

Experts warn that unless radical motion is taken to make sure the region receives adequate water — and higher manages what stays — southern Iraq’s marshlands will disappear, with sweeping consequences for your entire nation as farmers and pastoralists abandon their land for already crowded urban areas and lack of production results in rising food prices.

The Mesopotamian marshlands are also known as the cradle of civilization, as anthropologists consider that that is where humankind, some 12,000 years ago, began its wide-scale transition from a way of life of hunting and gathering to considered one of agriculture and settlement. Encompassing 4 separate marshes, the region has historically been home to a singular range of fish and birdlife, serving as winter habitat for migratory birds and sustaining a productive shrimp and finfish fishery.

But within the early Nineteen Nineties, Saddam Hussein began systematically destroying the marshes — bombing and draining them to evict and punish Marsh Arabs for participating in uprisings against his regime. Ultimately, the Iraqi president’s campaign reduced marsh water levels by 90 percent. After the Iraq War, the brand new government and Marsh Arabs began to dismantle embankments and drainage works; a subsequent U.N.-implemented rehydration project reported restoring surface water and vegetation to 58 percent of the marsh’s original size by 2006. Wildlife began reappearing, and by 2020, when the post-Saddam recovery was at its peak, around 250,000 Marsh Arabs had returned to their homeland to resume harvesting reeds, cultivating crops, herding water buffalo, and fishing.

The marshlands and their surrounding buffer zones currently cover roughly 4,000 square kilometers, but recent environmental gains are newly jeopardized as Iraq enters its fourth yr of drought. Upstream, in each Turkey and Iran, latest dams and diversions proceed to proliferate, without coordination or international cooperation, on the rivers that offer just about all of Iraq’s water.

Last July, the Iraqi government said that its water reserves had dropped by 60 percent because the previous yr. The low water flows have left huge swathes of marshland completely dry. Without water for irrigation, farmers don’t plant. Without roots to carry soil, desertification looms.

“The situation within the marshes now could be worse than when Saddam was attempting to destroy them,” says Dr. Hayder A. Al Thamiry, a professor of water resources engineering on the University of Baghdad who works for the federal government’s Centre for Restoration of Iraqi Marshes and Wetlands (CRIMW). That’s because water at the moment still flowed from Iran into eastern Iraq’s Huwaizah Marshes, keeping a minimum of that portion of the system alive. But ever since Iran, in 2009, accomplished construction of a 56-kilometer-long weir along its border with Iraq, water now not flows into the Huwaizah during times of drought. Now all of the marshes, says Al Thamiry, “are suffering very badly.”

Low river flows have knock-on effects on the standard of what water stays. Today, sea water intrudes so far as 189 kilometers upstream from the Persian Gulf and has destroyed greater than 24,000 hectares of agricultural land and 30,000 trees. Without inundations of fresh water, pollutants from agriculture, the oil and gas industry, and sewage have develop into more concentrated.

A number of the displaced Marsh Arabs have abandoned their traditional lifestyle and moved to cities like Basra and Baghdad.

Climate change is, after all, making matters worse — diminishing rainfall (Iraq has seen record low rainfall lately) and increasing temperatures, which speed up evaporation from reservoirs and streams. In response to the U.N. Environment Programme, Iraq is the fifth-most vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change. “Over the past couple of years there was consistently less rain, less water, less productivity from the land, and an increasing variety of dust storms,” said Dr. Salah El Hajj Hassan, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Iraq.

Mismanagement takes a toll as well. Iraq’s water infrastructure hasn’t been sufficiently maintained or modernized; unlined ditches and canals leak water into the soil; and power cuts hinder water pumping and storage. Often, farmers flood their fields to irrigate, slightly than using more parsimonious, targeted ways of watering, and villagers dig illegal wells and divert water from shared rivers.

The dropping water levels have caused extensive crop losses, making it increasingly difficult for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to feed their families. In response to a survey of households in Anbar, Basra, Dohuk, Kirkuk, and Ninewa provinces conducted by the nonprofit Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) last summer, one quarter of respondents — within the marshlands and beyond — experienced upward of 90 percent wheat crop failure attributable to lack of water. One in three households surveyed reduced the world of land they cultivated, and 42 percent of households stated that their production of barley, fruit, and vegetables declined compared with the previous cropping season.

A dead fish on the dried earth in Iraq’s Central Marshes in June 2021.
ASAAD NIAZI / AFP via Getty Images

From the beginning of last summer until late October, greater than 2,000 families were forced to desert their homes attributable to the retreating marshlands, in accordance with the FAO’s El-Hajj Hassan. A number of the displaced have moved to areas of marshland that also have water, while others have abandoned their traditional lifestyle and moved to cities like Basra or Baghdad.

Tensions amongst those that remain within the marshes are rising, and security consultants consider that water scarcity, and specifically the disappearance of the marshlands, could affect national security. In response to Eimear Hennessy, a former risk analyst for G4S Consulting, “The 1000’s of those who have been uprooted and impoverished by the continuing crisis within the Mesopotamian Marshes are prone to be more liable to recruitment by non-state actors” — militias and terrorist groups — “that make guarantees of a horny future.”

In response to Nature Iraq, the recent drying of the marshes has triggered a collapse in wildlife diversity, with populations of Binni, a brownish-gold fish highly prized by Marsh Arabs, plummeting. “Two thousand officially registered fishermen have lost their source of income and are actually unemployed,” Saleh Hadi, the Dhi Qar agriculture directorate, stated in October.

Iraq has been negotiating with its neighbors to permit more water to flow across its borders, however the situation has not improved.

Before the drought, the Marbled teal duck, listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, gave the impression to be thriving within the marshes, as was the endangered Basra Reed-warbler and the native Iraq Babbler. But with water levels dropping, Nature Iraq said, these birds are far less continuously seen.

Livestock are suffering too. Water buffalo, who graze within the rivers, now have a tough time finding clean water and sufficient food; 1000’s have died attributable to disease and malnutrition. “The lower water levels are having a devastating impact on the buffalo farmers,” said Samah Hadid, a spokesperson for the NRC. “The buffalo breeders that we’re talking to have gotten increasingly desperate.”

Because the outlook worsens for communities that live in Iraq’s marshlands, NGOs are promoting actions that might reduce the impact of drought, including investment in water filtering and treatment systems for areas with high salination levels. They’re pushing Iraqi authorities, on the national and regional level, to gather more data on water flows and on the impacts of scarcity, and to enhance the regulation of aquifers to stop over-pumping, which diminishes groundwater quantity and quality.

The Mesopotamian Marshes in 1975. Marsh Arabs lived in this village of woven reed houses.

The Mesopotamian Marshes in 1975. Marsh Arabs lived on this village of woven reed houses.
Nik Wheeler / Corbis via Getty Images

The Iraqi government is providing some grain farmers with salt-tolerant wheat; breeders are working on drought-tolerant sugar beets; and academics are advocating for programs that provide conflict-management training to communities which might be struggling to equitably share water resources.

For years, Iraq has been negotiating with its upstream neighbors to permit more water to flow across its border, however the situation has not improved. In January of 2022, Iraq announced it might sue Iran within the International Court of Justice for cutting its water access, however the case has not progressed. Last July, Iraq asked Turkey to extend the quantity of water that flows south into Iraq. Each side agreed that an Iraqi “technical delegation” would visit Turkey to guage water levels behind Turkish dams, but Turkey didn’t accept responsibility for Iraq’s water shortages. As a substitute, Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Güney, accused Iraqis of “squandering” their water resources and called on the nation to scale back water waste and modernize its irrigation systems.

The brand new yr is predicted to bring below-average rainfall to the region, in accordance with the UN’s World Food Programme and the FAO. With worsening climate-change impacts and no foreseeable improvement in water management, the outlook for Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes and the communities that depend on them looks bleak.

Correction, January 11, 2023: An earlier version of this text misquoted Samah Hadid of the Norwegian Refugee Council. She didn’t say that the Mesopotamian Marshes might be almost entirely worn out inside two years.


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