Declining rain over the past four years as well as upstream dams have reduced the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where ancient civilisations flourished. Photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali. AA

Iraq’s marshes are dying, and a civilisation with them

At just 23, Mohammed Hamid Nour longs for the former state of Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshes before a punishing drought left them arid, significantly thinning his water buffalo herd. Even in the marshes’ heart, Chibayish, sparse remnants of the ancient waterways remain. These arteries, winding through reeds, were once integral to the Marsh Arab culture, which stretches back thousands of years.

Pulling back reveals a landscape marred by drought, the once water-rich areas now bare and fractured. Nour has lost three-quarters of his herd to a drought that’s persistently tormented the marshes for four consecutive years. Labeling it the worst in 40 years, the United Nations this week branded the situation “alarming”, revealing “70 percent of the marshes [are] devoid of water”.

“I beg you, Allah, have mercy,” Nour pleaded, gazing at the desolation under a relentless, cloudless sky, his keffiyah adorning his head.

Marsh buffalo produce milk for the rich, clotted “geymar” cream, a breakfast staple in Iraq often paired with honey. As drought persists, the marshes’ water turns saline until it becomes lethal to the buffaloes. Several of Nour’s herd succumbed to this fate, while others were hastily sold before meeting the same end.

“If the drought continues and the government doesn’t help us, the others will also die,” warned the young herder, who relies solely on his herd for income.

Both the Mesopotamian marshes and the Marsh Arab culture, known as Ma’adan, to which Nour belongs, are recognized as Unesco world heritage sites. The Ma’adan have inhabited these marshes for 5,000 years, crafting homes from woven reeds on floating reed islands at the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers before they merge into the Gulf. They even fashioned their elaborate mosques from reeds.

However, the marshlands have diminished significantly, from 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) in the early 1990s to a mere 4,000 (1,500 square miles) by recent estimates. This shrinkage is attributed to dams erected upstream on the major rivers in Turkey and Syria, coupled with escalating temperatures due to climate change. Now, only a few thousand of the quarter-million Ma’adan that inhabited the marshes in the early 1990s endure.

Experts suggest Iraq’s handling of the waters has exacerbated the situation.

Largely arid Iraq is ranked by the United Nations as one of the world’s five countries most impacted by some effects of climate change. Photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali. AA

AFP crisscrossed the central Chibayish marshes at the close of June. By dawn, the temperature had already soared to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), later climbing towards 50. The United Nations identifies Iraq as one of the five nations most profoundly impacted by certain climate change effects. Precipitation becomes increasingly infrequent, and the World Bank projects average temperatures will escalate by 2.5 degrees over the next quarter-century.

Water levels in the central marshlands and the Euphrates River that supplies it are “falling by half a centimeter per day,” stated Jassim al-Assadi, an engineer with Nature Iraq, the nation’s foremost conservation group. He warned that this would worsen “over the next two months as temperatures rise and increased water evaporation ensues.”

To obtain water for his remaining buffalo, Mohammed Hamid Nour embarks on his canoe into deeper waters, where the salt concentration is lower. While filling a water tank on the canoe, he rolled up his sleeves to reveal a tattoo of the Zulfikar, the sword of Imam Ali, a foundational figure in Shi’ite Islam. Nour explained, with a smile, that he got it for “baraka,” or blessing. He needs all the assistance he can find.

The marshes teetered on the edge of extinction once before when former dictator Saddam Hussein drained them to root out Shia rebels seeking refuge there following the unsuccessful uprising after the First Gulf War in 1991. Hussein managed to transform 90 percent of the marshes into a “desert” in mere months, recalled Assadi. The majority of the Ma’adan either fled or “moved elsewhere in Iraq or emigrated to Sweden or the United States.”

However, the 2003 American-led invasion saw Saddam’s downfall and the destruction of the ditches he used to drain the marshes, enabling both the marshes and the Ma’adan to rebound. Now, two decades later, the water level is on a downward trajectory again.

“The level of the Euphrates in Iraq is around half of what it was in the 1970s,” stated Ali al-Quraishi of Baghdad’s University of Technology. He cited upstream dams in Turkey, where the Tigris and Euphrates originate, and additional ones on their tributaries in Syria and Iran, as the “principal” causes.

“The Turks have built more dams to accommodate their agricultural needs. As the population grows, more water is required for irrigation and domestic usage,” the expert added. 

The drought also affects husbandry, the sole source of income for locals.The people of the region, who depend on the water for their lives, are worried that the swamps will dry out more. Photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali. AA

Water has long been a source of tension between Iraq and Turkey. With Iraq urging Ankara to release more water, Turkish ambassador to Baghdad, Ali Riza Guney, incited anger last July by accusing Iraqis of “wasting water.”

Scientists say the Turkish claim contains a kernel of truth. Iraq’s water management is far from exemplary. Since the era of the ancient Sumerians, Iraqi farmers have employed flooding techniques to irrigate their land, a method considered highly inefficient.

Currently, water for agriculture is scarce, compelling authorities to significantly cut back on arable farming to ensure sufficient drinking water for the country’s 42 million inhabitants.

Last month, Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid told the BBC that the government “has taken significant steps to improve the water management system in talks with neighboring countries,” although he did not provide specific details.

In the central marshes, water levels are so low that even canoes run aground. Herder Youssef Mutlaq noted that areas covered with water merely “two months ago” are now arid. 

Not long ago, a handful of “mudhifs”—traditional reed houses—still had occupants. “There were numerous buffaloes, but as the water began to disappear, people left,” said the 20-year-old, whose animals now gnaw on bagged feed due to the dwindling availability of grass.

Pollution levels are escalating in tandem with salinization. Sewage, pesticides, and waste from factories and hospitals are discharged directly into the Euphrates along its route, much of which ends up in the marshes, explained Nadheer Fazaa of Baghdad University, a climate change specialist.

“We have analysed the water and found numerous pollutants like heavy metals,” which cause sickness, the scientist revealed. Concurrently, the fish population is declining. Where the binni—once a staple of the Iraqi table—used to swim, now only inedible fish are found.

While the root causes of the disaster remain unaddressed, some are attempting to mitigate the drought’s impact.

Thousands of dead fish washed ashore in southeast Iraq earlier this month, prompting an official investigation into the wildlife disaster that officials said may be linked to drought conditions. Photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali. AA

The French NGO Agronomists and Vets Without Borders (AVSF), backed by France, is training their Iraqi counterparts and aiming to aid herders and fishermen. “We spent last summer distributing drinking water for both the people and the animals of the wetlands,” stated veterinarian Herve Petit, an expert in rural development. He added that many herders have been forced to “sell off their animals at rock-bottom prices.”

However, such initiatives are scarce. Engineer Jassim al-Assadi is among the few advocating for the marshes and alerting authorities. Khaled Shemal from the water resources ministry stated they were “working diligently” to rejuvenate the wetlands. But, the priority is to secure drinking water and supplies for households and agriculture.

Meanwhile, many Marsh Arabs have departed for towns and cities, where they are often regarded as outcasts. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) termed it an “exodus” last year.

Walid Khdeir relocated from the wetlands with his wife and six children “four or five months ago” to reside in a house on dry land in the city of Chibayish. “It was difficult, our lives were there like our grandparents’ before us. But what can we do?” expressed the 30-year-old.

Now, Khdeir fattens buffaloes for resale but is compelled to purchase fodder at steep prices due to the scarce availability of grass for the animals. “If the water comes back like before, we will return to the marshes. Our life is there,” he affirmed.