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‘Our whole life depends on water’: Climate change, pollution and dams threaten Iraq’s Marsh Arabs


CHEBAYESH MARSHES, Iraq, Oct 14 (Reuters) – On an island surrounded by the slim waterways of the Chebayesh Marshes in southern Iraq, Sabah Thamer al-Baher rises with the solar to exploit his herd of water buffalo.

This summer time has been powerful for Baher, a father of two. Iraq’s 2020-2021 rainfall season was the second driest in 40 years, in keeping with the United Nations, inflicting the salinity of the wetlands to rise to harmful ranges.

Animals fell sick and died, and Baher was pressured to purchase contemporary consuming water for his personal herd of round 20 buffaloes, his solely supply of earnings.

Another drought is predicted for 2023 as local weather change, pollution and upstream damming preserve Iraq trapped in a cycle of recurring water crises.

“The marshes are our life. If droughts persist, we will stop to exist, because our whole life depends on water and raising water buffaloes,” stated 37-year-old Baher.

Baher and his household are Marsh Arabs, the wetlands’ indigenous inhabitants that was displaced within the Nineteen Nineties when Saddam Hussein dammed and drained the marshes to flush out rebels hiding within the reeds.

After his overthrow in 2003, the marshes had been partly reflooded and many Marsh Arabs returned, together with Baher’s household.

However, situations have pushed the wetlands’ fragile ecosystem off steadiness, endangering biodiversity and livelihoods, stated Jassim al-Asadi, an environmentalist born within the marshes.

“The less water, the saltier it is,” Christophe Chauveau, a French veterinarian who surveyed the marshes for Agronomists and Veterinarians Without Borders stated, including that buffalos drink much less and produce much less milk when the water high quality drops.

According to the Max Planck Institute, the temperature rise within the Middle East throughout summer time has been greater than 0.5 levels Celsius per decade – about twice as excessive as the worldwide common.

Iraq’s neighbours are additionally affected by droughts and rising temperatures, which has led to regional water disputes. The water ministry stated earlier this yr that water flows from Iran and Turkey had been decreased by 50 % all through the summer time.


Then there’s the matter of pollution coming from upstream. In 2019, the federal government stated that 5 million cubic metres a day of uncooked sewage water had been being pumped immediately into the Tigris, one of many rivers that feed Iraq’s marshes.

Environmentalist Azzam Alwash stated there was an pressing want for Iraq to decide to a long-term water administration technique as its fast-growing inhabitants of almost 40 million is estimated to double by 2050.

Aoun Dhiab, spokesperson for the water ministry, stated the federal government’s technique was to protect the deeper, everlasting water our bodies of the marshes throughout a minimal of two,800 sq. kilometres (1080 sq. miles).

“This is what we are planning, to preserve the permanent water bodies to protect the ecological resources and fish stock,” he stated.

Dhiab stated water ranges within the marshes had partially improved for the reason that summer time, with much less evaporation resulting from falling temperatures and that the wetlands shrink and develop naturally relying on the season.

He additionally stated the federal government couldn’t allocate extra water to the marshes when there have been shortages of consuming water in summer time.

“Of course people in the marshes want more water, but we need to prioritise. The priority goes to drinking water, to the municipalities and to preserving the Shatt al-Arab river,” he stated.

Drought and pollution of the Shatt al-Arab river brought about a disaster in southern Iraq in 2018, when hundreds had been hospitalised with water-borne illnesses.

The penalties are nonetheless punishing for the Marsh Arabs. With his youngest daughter nestled in his arms and consuming buffalo milk out of her feeder, Baher watches his nephews are likely to a sick buffalo.

In summer time, a few of Baher’s kinfolk moved their herds altogether to deeper elements of the marshes, the place salinity ranges had been decrease, however preventing over one of the best spots as households had been pressured to share shrinking areas.

Estimates on the marshes’ present inhabitants range broadly. Once 400,000 within the Fifties, round 250,000 individuals returned when the marshes had been reflooded.

While diminishing water provides pushed farmers this yr to maneuver to the cities, the place an absence of jobs and providers have led to protests prior to now, Baher, like many different younger herders, hopes that he’ll have the ability to stay right here.

“I felt like a stranger in the city,” he stated, remembering when the marshes had been drained. “When the water came back to the marshes, we regained our freedom.”

Reporting by Charlotte Bruneau and Thaier Al-Sudani
Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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Buffaloes are seen in the Chebayesh marsh, Dhi Qar province, Iraq, July 7, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Sabah Thamer al-Baher carries reeds at the Chebayesh marsh, Dhi Qar province, Iraq, July 6, 2021. Iraq's 2020-2021 rainfall season was the second driest in 40 years, according to the United Nations, causing the salinity of the wetlands to rise to dangerous levels. Animals fell sick and died, and Baher was forced to buy fresh drinking water for his own herd of around 20 buffaloes, his only source of income. Another drought is predicted for 2023 as climate change, pollution and upstream damming keep Iraq trapped in a cycle of recurring water crises.

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