Every year, Iraq’s vast wetlands in the south of the country see their water levels and quality naturally fluctuate. During the winter, the marshes did not have the same aspect as today, as a dry and hot summer had hit Mesopotamia. One after another, unprecedented droughts are heating the region, emptying the rivers and forcing the water buffalo, an animal at the heart of the economic life in the marshes, to flee to areas where the water levels are higher. While a continuous rise in temperatures and rarefaction of water resources due to the spiral of climate change is affecting the whole planet, wetlands such as the Iraqi marshes, as of today, are facing existential challenges. 

These last months, earlier-than-usual drought prompted a number of water buffalo breeders to migrate toward areas in the heart of the central marshes of Chabayish district (Dhi Qar province, 400 km South East of Baghdad) for fresh water. The Ahwar, the local name of Iraq’s marshes is witnessing an ecological crisis as remarkable droughts threaten its perennity and biodiversity. 

The dangers of drought are not exclusive to water buffalo breeders only, but also greatly affect all the inhabitants that make a living from fishing and working in professions related with the abundance of water in the marshes. The drought thus brought people to a constant state of fear from the unknown future, which they predict will bring more and more droughts.

The inhabitants of the marshes proudly claim to have lived there for thousands of years. A genetic study in 2011 that investigated the origins of the Ma’dan (the Marsh Arabs), concluded that they are the descendants of the Semites who can be traced back to the early civilizations that thrived in mesopotamia.

According to other reports, in the 70s, the area of ​​the marshes used to encompass 17% of the area of ​​Iraq, while water covered more than nine thousand square kilometers. However the first and second Gulf wars posed existential threats to the region and its inhabitants. At the peak of its tragic era, the marshes shrunk to only 760 square kilometers in 2002.

World heritage fraud

In July 2016, four important Iraqi marshlands in the south of Iraq joined the UNESCO World Heritage List. The newly listed world heritage sites are located between Basra, Maysan, and Dhi Qar, namely the Chebayesh marshes, the western Hammar marsh, the eastern Hammar marsh, and al-Hawiza marsh. For over five years now, the world heritage sites have remained as they were before the inclusion on the UN’s list: subject to neglect and drought. Moreover, as the UN was adding the marshes to their list, the Chebayesh marshes were turned into a heavy sewage water dumpster by the local government.

With no significant economic, health, or tourism projects completed in those areas which could support the marshes population, this unique environmental haven is being threatened to disappear. Raad Al-Asadi, head of the Chebayesh Eco-Tourism Organization, told The Red Line, that “in a few months, the sixth anniversary of the marshes joining world heritage sites passed with no signs of the bright future we had been promised”.  

Mr. Al-Asadi added that marshes’ dwellers fear a repetition of the drought scenario that they experienced in the past years. “These droughts led to the death of buffaloes and fish, as we are witnessing a continuous decrease in water levels in the marshes, while there has been no concrete solutions put forth by the authorities to address the problem.”

Negligence of marshes’ areas is also related to the corruption which heavily swept through the country since the American invasion. Recently, a tourist complex project in the heart of the marshes, worth 5.5 Million USD was not completed due to political objections and disagreements between influential party leaders. The project was therefore dismissed and abandoned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, according to local officials that spoke under the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Haider al-Salihi, a marshes’ local, expressed his frustration to The Red Line on the matter of government inaction and responsibility regarding the current catastrophic situation: “The government doesn’t care about our problems here”, noting that because of deteriorating living conditions in their environment, he is witnessing a sharp rise of emmigration by locals from central Ahwars towards areas where the water is more abundant and of better quality. “We did not benefit from the enlisting of our homeland on a World heritage site, as the whole matter never surpassed media statements.”, Mr. al-Salihi stated. 

In recent months, marshes recorded one of their sharpest declines in water levels. However, local authorities and international actors keep failing to provide adequate assistance to the Marshes’ communities. Despite the years of drought that passed on the marshes, the inhabitants still cling to the homeland of their forefathers and to their ancestral lifestyle.

Endangered biodiversity

According to a research sponsored by the Iraqi ministry of Environment, Iraqi marshes are a fertile perimeter and home for many unique birds including Basra reed Warbler, Iraqi Babbler, sacred Ibis, and White-headed duck all year long, and migrant birds like the sparrow Hawk, the pallid Harrier, the white Stork, or the greater Flamingo.

Mr. Jassim al-Asadi, head of Nature Iraq Non Govermental Organization, asserts that the marshes offer an ideal environment for migratory birds and this distinctive biodiversity is what helped cast the site on the UN’s World Heritage list. But at the same time, this environment is exposed to the effects of illegal poaching. “There are many destructive hunting strategies used by poachers to catch birds, including protected ones.”, he claimed.

Mr. Jassim, added that “droughts are periodic in the marshes since their restauration in 2003.” In 2009, the drought hit the marshes hard, which prompted the NGO “Nature Iraq” to work on solutions to raise the levels and quality of the marshes’s water. Thus they established a dyke that channels the Euphrates River to raise the Marshes’ average level from 30 cm to more than 140 cm.

While some specialists try to reassure the population by describing the situation as a periodic ebb and flow of water, others share a more pessimistic image of how drought affects the biodiversity of the marshes. Environmental researcher, Laith Al-Obaidi, explained to The Red Line that the fast scale repetition of droughts due to global warming is striking certain elements of the biosphere. “This is leading to a mass collapse of species relying on the environmental-medium (air, water and land where pollutants are released), which subsequently has an impact on the human communities.”, he detailed. 

According to Mr. Laith, droughts cause changes in the fundamental elements of life such as water and salinity levels. Oversalinity can lead to the extermination of entire species of animals such as local fish, which is the basis of an entire food chain. It takes dozens of years for a natural environment to recover from a single drought, however, we are witnessing quick repetition of weather fluctuations including droughts and heat waves which might by time make it impossible for biodiversity to recover. 

What could make things worse is the low level of awareness regarding the dangers of drought. Most people believe that marshes are large pieces of wetlands rather than a complete biological network connected to each other. Hence the need for sustainable solutions that protects each and every single element, Mr Laith continued.

Mr. Jassim expanded the matter, explaining that droughts have a significant impact in terms of milk productivity in the Iraqi marshes.” The decline of buffalo milk production is a result of the lack of pastures, the scarcity of water and the deterioration of its quality as well. As salinity rose in various areas of Chebaysh marshes, exceeding 12,600 parts per million (ppm), which is a high salinity rate, according to Al-Asadi.

Today, many buffalo owners find it difficult to buy fodder, and have to sell their cattle in order to sustain their remaining animals. Water quality and levels of pollutants also affect the buffalo’s health, which spend most of its day submerged in the marshes. Mr. Jassim explained that the flow of fresh water from the Tigris entering the eastern marshes helps decrease the levels of pollutants, but as fresh water levels decrease, the pollution rates gradually increase. 

Additionally, the polluting elements coming from the sewage stations that are released in Iraq’s rivers are saturated with heavy metals. This additional pollution has caused a lot of diseases to the buffaloes. According to a veterinarian who refused to be named, his profession is struggling with a huge influx of buffaloes with diseases, at the summer peak, due to the release of sewage water,” with rates of diseases rapidly increasing due the high temperatures that forces the animals to stay longer periods in polluted waters.

Dr. Khaled Al-Fartousi, the director of Iraq’s branch of the International Federation of Buffalo Breeders, shared some statistics regarding Buffalos in the marshes. “There are more than 300,000 buffalos in Iraq today, while their number neared a million animals in the seventies”. These numbers show a swift decline of buffalo population in the marshes area in a few decades, which can be associated with the drastic decrease in the Marshes’ surface area as well as the decline of its waters’ quality. 

Mr. Jassim also called upon the Iraqi government to “take its responsibility in preserving the marshes efficiently, especially since it has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site”.

State reactions

Instead of consulting specialists and major international research centers, Iraqi state authority went on accusing environmental activists of misleading the masses due to campaigns to expose the impact of droughts in the marshes. 

Mr. Adnan Al-Moussawi, the director of the Marshes Revitalization Center in Dhi Qar, a governmental organization part of the ministry of Water resources, attempted to explain how the activist’s campaign was misleading: “Social media posts that indicate drought in the marshes are inaccurate, and not based on data and comparison of the annual rainfall levels and the water flow from the Euphrates into the central marshes.”

Contradicting satellite images and specialists analysis, the State official kept an optimistic perspective on the matter, saying: “the quantities entering the marshes are very good, in addition to the improvement in salinity levels,” not clarifying which studies corroborated his views. Hence, Mr. Al-Moussawi didn’t just contradict facts given by specialists, but contradicted himself in terms of instrumentalizing recorded data. However, some accuracy could be traced in his comments when he mentioned that the drought this year isn’t the worst, as the region witnessed worse drought in 2015, and in 2018.

It is worth mentioning that environmental activists have always been subject to suspicion by state officials, which usually leads to intimidation or even death threats. Salman Khairalla, the head of Humat Dijlah Environmental, a non-profit association, confided this reality to the Red Line. “State authorities deal with environmental activism with hypersensitivity and do everything they can to undermine their awareness campaigns.”, the environmentalist declared. 

According to a press release by the Ministry of Water Resources, Iraq will receive 11 billion cubic meters of water less in its rivers by 2035 due to the development of dams both in Turkey and Iran where the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributary rivers originate from. The loss of this large amount of water will have a clear impact on securing water needs for the population and the environment.

On May 28th, the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Water and Marshlands called for the launch of an intensive national campaign to dig wells in order to provide water for agricultural lands suffering from drought as a result of Turkey’s and Iran’s non-compliance with Iraq’s water quota“. 

The proof by satellite imagery

Until the 1950s, Iraqi marshes represented a source of cultural richness and biodiversity. However, according to satellite images from 2002, the marshes were almost fully transformed into a desertscape. 

For eight years during the 80s, the eastern marshlands were turned into a war zone that Sadam’s regime attempted to drain. The Marshes managed to maintain themselves near the border as a fresh water flow kept flowing. Later on, in 1991 an armed popular uprising took place in the south of Iraq in which marsh Arab tribes took part against Sadam’s regime following a devastating withdrawal from previously invaded Kuwait. The rebel tribes used the thick reeds’ natural habitat as a cover for their guerilla attacks on the Iraqi army. As a punishment, the regime destroyed the rebels’ heaven by diverting the course of Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which until that moment had provided vital water flow to the marshes from time immemorial.

In 2003 drainage structures were torn down to revive the marshes’ areas. The Iraq Marsh lands Observation System (IMOS) project, implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2003-2005), reported a recovery of 42% of the original marshland by November 2005.

The satellite visuals that were taken of Iraqi marshes in separate periods of time show the shrinkage of the marshlands, as the Iraqi marshes, which had an area of 19,788 square kilometers in 1975, decreased significantly to 6852 square kilometers in 2016 in spite of the regular hydration process.

More recently, the unilateral decision by Turkey to exploit large amounts of water resources normally due to Iraq have put the biodiversity of the marshes at serious risk. Climate change, on the other hand, is creating an endless chain of quick weather fluctuation that will eventually eradicate the marshes, unless countered with unprecedented efforts. Unless action is taken, this unique area that has been full of life for as long as human memory can reach will disappear.

VIAAlaa Koli, Mohammed AlZaidawi