Tens of thousands of fish killed by high salinity in Iraqi river

Riverbanks in Maysan province awash with carcasses in a stark reminder of the impact of water mismanagement and climate change

The bodies of fish litter the once vibrant waterways in Al Mijar Al Kabeer district. Photo: Ahmed Salih Nima
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Thousands of tonnes of dead fish have washed up on the riverbanks of Iraq’s southern province of Maysan, in what has been described as an ecological catastrophe.

The distressing scene is unfolding as a result of a significant increase in salinity and pollution, stemming from the region's shortage of freshwater supplies.

“The reason is the lack of water supplies from the Tigris River that feed small rivers and canals in some parts of the province,” environmental activist Ahmed Salih Nima told The National.

“The lack of water supplies lead to decreased oxygen and increased salinity rate, causing the pH [a measure of the acidity or alkalinity] to increase, killing millions of fish,” Mr Nima said.

“Sustainable water supplies are needed to refresh the water in these rivers and canals in order to keep the temperature low and not to lower oxygen and increase salinity rate.”

The once vibrant waterways in Al Mijar Al Kabeer district and surrounding areas, which sustained abundant aquatic life and supported local livelihoods, now resemble a graveyard, with the lifeless bodies of fish washed across the river banks for miles.

Boats now struggle to navigate the once thriving rivers and canals, adding to the devastating impact on local communities who mostly depend on fishing and the businesses it supports.

The affected areas, about 70km south-west of Maysan provincial capital Amara, used to export 8-10 tonnes of fish a day to southern provinces, Mr Nima said.

“Today, that is completely gone,” he added. “Thousands of people who depend on fishing are now affected, from fishermen to other business such as ice sellers, boat repairmen, truck drivers, wholesale and retail merchants.”

Cattle breeders, who have relied on the river for generations, also find themselves at a loss.

“We are going through an unspeakable harsh situation,” Naim Hussein Joeiber told The National. “The fish are gone and our livestock are dying due to lack of water and high salinity.”

The 60-year old father of nine has so far lost four cows and two water buffalos out of a total of 30, but has no option other than to stay in the area.

“There is no drop of water and we are waiting for the government to help us,” he added. “We can’t leave to the city, we don’t know how to live there.”

The magnitude of the disaster has raised concerns from scientists and environmentalists about the long-term ecological consequences for the region.

Preliminary investigations point to a confluence of factors that have contributed to this environmental catastrophe.

The primary culprit is the alarming rise in salinity levels, which has made the river inhospitable for the delicate freshwater fish species that once flourished in its waters.

The scarcity of freshwater supplies due to prolonged droughts and excessive water use has also caused an influx of saltwater from neighbouring bodies of water, severely compromising the delicate balance of the ecosystem.

The amount of oxygen in the water has decreased to 25 per cent of the minimum rate, said Dr Bassim Oraibi, the General Director of Maysan Veterinary Hospital.

According to Dr Oraibi, the minimum rate should be between 2mg and 5mg a litre. But it now stands at 0.5 mg/l.

Alarming pollution levels have further exacerbated the crisis.

Unmonitored discharge of industrial waste, untreated sewage and agricultural run-off into the river has turned its water toxic, killing fish and other aquatic organisms.

The absence of effective waste management systems and environmental regulations in the region has accelerated the degradation of water quality notably.

The situation has prompted calls for immediate action from authorities.

Environmentalists and concerned citizens are urging the government to prioritise the restoration of freshwater supplies and implement stringent pollution control measures.

The need for robust waste management systems and sustainable agricultural practices is more urgent than ever before.

I expect the environment in Maysan to drastically get worse in the coming two weeks and we will lose more fish in other areas
Ahmed Salih Nima, environmental activist

Known in ancient times as Mesopotamia or the Land Between the Two Rivers, Iraq was in the heart of a region known as the Fertile Crescent.

Today, the UN classifies the oil-rich nation as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change.

Its severe water crisis has been gradually worsening for decades, negatively affected by climate change, mismanagement and pollution.

Desertification affects 39 per cent of the country and 54 per cent of its agricultural land has been degraded, mainly due to soil salinity caused by historically low water levels in the two rivers, reduced rainfall and the rise in sea levels.

Iraq’s two main sources of water, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which account for more than 90 per cent of the country’s freshwater reserves, have significantly declined over the years.

Construction of dams and diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Iran has exacerbated the crisis, leaving downstream nations such as Iraq with less water.

Decades of war and conflict have damaged or completely destroyed the country's infrastructure, leading to water losses and inefficient distribution.

Mr Nima said these problems had started to affect other places in Maysan province, although at low levels.

“I expect the environment in Maysan to drastically get worse in the coming two weeks and we will lose more fish in other areas,” he warned.

Updated: July 09, 2023, 11:06 AM