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In a past that was like a dream, Muhammad Hamid Nour owned a herd of about a hundred buffalo, but the historic marshes of southern Iraq dried up, and with them the numbers of his animals decreased significantly.
From the sky, the view of the central marshes in Chibayish looks tragic.
Only a few bodies of water remain, connected by waterways around which reed plants have grown. In the areas where the water receded, a barren land appeared, resembling wrinkled skin.
For the fourth year in a row, drought casts a heavy shadow over the marshes and kills the buffalo whose milk is used to prepare the “Qaymar” cream, beloved by Iraqis.
Under a blue sky that does not promise rain soon, 23-year-old Muhammad Hamid Nour contemplates the disastrous scene. In the face of the harsh reality, he begs God, saying, “Only God’s mercy remains.” In just a few months, the young man lost three-quarters of his herd of buffalo, some of which died, and some of which he had to sell.
As drought worsens in the marshes, the level of salinity in the water rises, and animals that drink from sources where the salinity is very high die.
The man adds, "This year, if the drought persists and the state does not help us, we will not find a single one of our remaining buffalo."
The United Nations said this week that the current drought is the worst in 40 years, and the situation is “worrying” in the marshes, 70% of which are devoid of water.
The Mesopotamian Marshes are wet areas distributed between Al-Chibayish, Al-Hawizeh and Al-Hammar, classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2016 as a world heritage.
However, it is disappearing, and with it the civilization of the Maadan Marshes, or the Marsh Arabs, who live by fishing and hunting animals, and whose civilization roots in the land of the marshes extend back 5 thousand years.
Latest estimates indicate that the area of the marshes today is about 4,000 square kilometers, down from 20,000 square kilometers during the 1990s. It is still inhabited by only about a few thousand Ma'dans.
This decline is due in particular to high temperatures and scarcity of rain, which in the last four years has pushed the marshes towards ruin, while they were already suffering due to dams built by neighboring Turkey and Iran on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in addition to traditional water management that experts believe is inappropriate.
The temperature in the central marshes in late June, during the AFP team's tour, reached 35 degrees Celsius at dawn, but reached 50 degrees during the day.
The United Nations ranks Iraq among the five countries most affected by some of the repercussions of climate change. Rainfall is very little, and by 2050, the average annual temperature is expected to increase by two and a half degrees Celsius, according to the World Bank.
The level of the central marshes and the Euphrates River, their main source of nutrition, is declining at a rate of "half a centimeter per day," explains 66-year-old engineer Jassim Al-Asadi, an environmental activist defending the marshes through the "Nature Iraq" non-governmental organization.
Al-Asadi adds, "Within two months, temperatures will be very high and water evaporation will increase."
Muhammad Hamid Nour lives with his buffaloes on a piece of land where the waters have receded. To water his animals, the young man has to go in a boat to a deeper point with a lower salinity to obtain water, and fill water containers to transport to his animals.
On his arm, he has a tattoo of the sword of Imam Ali Zulfiqar, in order to bring “blessing,” as the young man says.
Thirty years ago, the marshes experienced their first death, when Saddam Hussein drained them. After the Shiite uprising that broke out after the Gulf War in 1991, the Iraqi dictator took the decision to pursue its participants until the last corner of the marshes.
Within just months, more than 90% of the marshes turned into “desert,” according to Jassim Al-Asadi. At that time, the vast majority of the region's population of 250,000 people left "the place for other regions in Iraq, or to Sweden and the United States," he added.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 following the American invasion, life revived in the marshes with the destruction of the dams and canals that were used to artificially drain them. The water is running again, and boats are sailing through the waterways surrounded by reeds and islands inhabited by marsh miners who have returned to their land.
However, twenty years later, it becomes clear during a boat tour that the water level in it is constantly decreasing.
“In Iraq, the level of the Euphrates River has declined by about 50% since the 1970s,” explains Ali Al-Quraishi, an expert on the marshes from Baghdad Technical University. It is considered that the "main" reasons behind this exist at the source, in neighboring countries.
Turkey, from which the Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate, as well as Syria and Iran, through which the two rivers pass, have built many dams on the two rivers and their tributaries.
Al-Quraishi says, “The Turks built more dams to meet their agricultural needs. As the population grew, the demand for water for domestic and irrigation uses increased.”
The water file is a source of tension between Iraq and Turkey. While Iraq demands that Ankara release more water, Turkey's ambassador to Baghdad, Ali Riza Gunay, sparked controversy in July 2022 when he accused the Iraqis of "wasting water."
However, there is some truth in the Turkish diplomat's criticisms. According to scientific opinions, the Iraqi authorities’ management of water resources is not ideal.
Since Sumerian and Akkadian times, Iraqi farmers have used flood irrigation, which is largely a source of water waste.
Iraq also faces difficulties in securing water for agricultural needs, and the authorities have been forced to significantly reduce cultivated areas. The priority is to provide drinking water for the country's population of 42 million people.
In an interview with the BBC in late June, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid confirmed that the government had taken “important measures to improve the water system and (launch) a dialogue with neighboring countries,” without giving further details.
As it advances into the central marshes, the canoe has difficulty continuing on its way due to the absence of water.
The beach became a desert area where the water receded “two months ago,” says Yousef Mutlaq, a 20-year-old buffalo breeder, who covered his face with a scarf to protect him from the heat of the sun and dust.
The area contained ten houses, or “hosts,” which are traditional dwellings made of reeds.
“The area was full, but when the water disappeared, all the people went,” the young man says, sighing as he looks at his buffalo, which were chewing the food packed in bags, due to the scarcity of grass and green plants in the marshes.
In addition to salinity, pollution makes the situation worse.
Along the cities through which the Euphrates River passes, pollutants from pesticides, sewage, and factory or hospital waste contribute to worsening the situation, explains Nazir Abboud Faza, a professor at the University of Baghdad who specializes in climate change in Iraq.
The “journey” of these pollutants ends in the central marshes. The expert added, "We analyzed the quality of the water and found many pollutants in it, such as heavy metals," which cause diseases.
Fishing is also slowly dying. While the "brown" fish that used to decorate the Iraqi table were widespread, only a few small, inedible fish are now found.
With the inability to address the causes of drought, some are seeking to mitigate its effects.
The French non-governmental organization Agriculturalists and Veterinarians Without Borders carries out support missions for fishermen and livestock breeders.
One day in June, French veterinarians went to farms adjacent to the central marshes to train Iraqi livestock breeders on modern methods for diagnosing diseases in cows and buffaloes, which especially suffer from water-related diseases.
“We spent last summer distributing drinking water to supply the animals and people in the marshes,” says Herve Petit, the organization’s veterinarian and rural development expert.
Due to the scarcity of water and reeds, many livestock farmers were forced to “sell as many animals as possible at low prices, due to the law of supply and demand,” according to Botti.
However, civil society initiatives remain rare. Engineer Jassim Al-Asadi is one of the few who struggle to preserve the marshes by trying to attract the attention of the public authorities, sometimes under difficult circumstances, given that the water issue is politicized in the country.
At the Ministry of Water Resources, a spokesman confirms that the ministry is working “hard” to revive these wet areas. But the priority is to provide water for drinking, domestic and agricultural uses.
In doing so, many Marsh Arabs surrender and leave for the cities where they are treated as outcasts.
In August 2022, the Iraq branch of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization spoke of a “population exodus,” especially towards the cities of Basra and Baghdad.
Walid Khudair, 30 years old, is one of those who left the marshes for the nearby city of Chibayish, with his wife and six children “four or five months ago,” where they live in a house in a deplorable condition.
Khudair adds regretfully, “Our lives are there, our families lived there, and our ancestors. But what do we do? There is no longer any life” in the marshes.
This man now wants to fatten his buffalo so that he can sell them, but the prices of fodder, which were previously abundant in the marshes, are very high.
Khudair says, "If the water returns and the situation returns as it was before, we will return to live there."
Source: Jordanian Al-Rai newspaper
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