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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 Hawizeh Marsh, which is located on the border with the eastern neighbor Iran, and the Jabayish 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 the drought and the almost complete absence of rain during the last three years, but also the low level of water flowing from the rivers that originate in the neighboring countries of Iran and Turkey, forcing Baghdad to legalize 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, only muddy pools of water here and there, and dry lines of streams that descended through the swamps of the once fertile marshes, remain on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2016. .
Like his father before, Hashem works as a buffalo breeder. He recounts, "We used to live in the marshes. We fished, and the animals drank the water and graze among the reeds ."
Today, the Hashem family has only five buffaloes out of more than thirty that it owned as a result of the death of some of them, and others were sold during the past few years to cover the family's expenses .
The family was forced to pay attention to the livestock they had left to protect them from perishing in the event that they fell in the mud. Animals that are exhausted and malnourished will not be able to extricate themselves .
Poverty and climate change
The marshes experienced previous years of severe drought before being irrigated by heavy rains .
Between 2020 and 2022, the water level and humidity decreased in 41% of the area of the marshes in southern Iraq, including Al-Hawizeh and Al-Jabayish, while water bodies dried up in 46% of the area of the marshes, according to a survey conducted by the Dutch NGO “Pax” based on images from satellites .
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 ."
She pointed to "disastrous 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, said, "The drought has completely destroyed biodiversity. There are no fish or animals such as water dogs, wild pigs or birds ."
On its website, UNESCO recalls that the marshes are home to "multiple species of endangered animals" and are "one of the largest wintering sites" 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 fed 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 water flow before stopping it again, according to the activist .
- 'In search of water' -
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) .
Hatem Hamid, the director general of the National Center for Water Resources Management, blames 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 explained 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°C, it also refers to "high evaporation that occurs in the marshes" and cannot be compensated for by available water .
He added, "We cannot secure 100% (water) for agriculture, or 100% for the marshes ."
For his part, the Director-General of the Marsh Recovery Center Hussein al-Kilani 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, described by some 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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