Iraq’s marshes, thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden, are rapidly drying out.
An unprecedented drought — owing to low rainfall for three years, reduced water flows in Iraq’s main rivers the Tigris and Euphrates and mismanagement — is devastating swathes of the mythical Mesopotamian marshes.
“The picture is bleak,” prominent environmental activist Jassim Al Asadi told The National. “The inhabitants are struggling with bitterness and are living under the poverty line.”
The fabled marshlands — immortalised in Iraq by images of iconic reed buildings known as mudhifs and in the West by the poetic writings of explorer Wilfred Thesiger, were home to millions of native and migratory birds as well as Marsh Arabs.
A unique minority in the region, they have fished and raised water buffalo in its waters for more than 5,000 years.
They are mainly nestled between Tigris and Euphrates in southern Iraq and are considered the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, with their once rich biodiversity.
During the 1970s, water covered around 9,650 square kilometres, rising to 20,000 square kilometres during flooding and heavy rain seasons.
Since then they have been damaged significantly due to the expansion of land for agriculture, oil exploration and decades of war.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the wetlands suffered unspeakable devastation when Saddam Hussein diverted the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates away from the marshes in retaliation for a failed Shiite uprising.
The marshes turned into desert, forcing out some 300,000 inhabitants. By 2002 they had dwindled to an area of around 760 square kilometres.
But since 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam’s regime, efforts to restore the marshes have gradually revived the area.
Huge parts were re-flooded after dykes were torn down, allowing plants to grow again and former residents to return, reviving hunting and fishing.
By 2005, the marshes regained 40 per cent of their original area and Iraq aimed to recover 5,560 square kilometres.
In 2016, the marshlands were made a Unesco World Heritage site for their biodiversity and ancient history.
“Today, the marshes are going through their worst days with water covering less than 8 per cent of the 2005 target,” said Mr Al Asadi, the managing director of the Nature Iraq NGO.
In recent years, Turkey has shrugged off calls to stop construction of a vast network of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, drastically reducing water flows. Iran has also diverted almost all tributaries for use within its borders.
Other problems in the marshes include water quality degradation caused by sewage, high levels of salinity — which builds up naturally in times of drought — and pollution from pesticides and untreated industrial effluent.
“The situation is tragic,” said another environmental activist, Ayad Al Asadi. “I feel sadness and pain whenever I enter the marshes.”
Over summer, more than 1,000 families have left for urban areas in Thi Qar province, where large parts of the marshes are located, he said. About 95 per cent of the fish resources have been lost.
In the town of Chebayesh, the home of the central marshes in Thi Qar, daily fish exports fell from between 80 and 100 tonnes early this year to no more than eight tonnes now, Mr Al Asadi said.
Each family lost at least 25 per cent of their buffalo, either selling them to meet their needs or watching them die due to lack of fodder or bad quality water.
With more than 750 buffalo dying last month in Chebayesh alone, their number now stands at 29,000, down from 33,000, he said.
The productivity of the buffalo has also declined, from producing 4 litres to 5 litres of milk a day in winter to no more than one litre now.
Awareness of the marshes' plight
Iraq is ranked by the UN as the fifth-most vulnerable country to climate change in the world. It is at high risk from the worst effects of the crisis, including diminishing rainfall, soaring temperatures and acute water scarcity.
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, less rain and sea level rises.
In recent months, many of Iraq’s lakes have shrunk and the country has been hit by a series of heavy sand storms, paralysing life and sending thousands to hospital, grounding flights and colouring skies a deep orange.
Feeling neglected by the government, marsh residents and activists recently launched the National Campaign to Save the Marshes.
Standing in a sprawling, cracked and barren patch of former marshland, dozens gathered on Saturday calling for their fair share of water and financial support for the inhabitants.
“Drying the marshes up is a crime against Iraq and humanity,” one banner read. “Drought threatens the marshes,” said another.
They called for immediate measures such as releasing more water from dam reservoirs, widening the existing water canals, setting aside funds to help residents and offering subsidised fodder, Jassim Al Asadi said.
Another protest is planned next month in Baghdad, he said.
'Save the Marshes'
Nearly a month ago, artist Bassim Al Mahdi visited the marshlands to prepare for a photography exhibition on climate change.
“We went to document the drought, but we were shocked by the great and unspeakable tragedy in every corner,” Mr Al Mahdi told The National.
“The marshes have turned into barren deserts. The vast areas that were once covered with water turned into cracked dried land with dead animals everywhere and inhabitants are leaving.
“It was a really painful and heartbreaking scene.”
To raise local and international attention, he created a sprawling calligraphy work ornately spelling out the words “Save the Marshes”.
To deliver a strong message, the work covers 2,000 square metres in a recently dried spot which he used to visit to take pictures.
He used reed panels to write the phrase in the Kufi Arabic font, in a style resembling the entrance of mudhifs.
The reed houses could soon be the last thing the marshes are remembered by unless a better water supply can be found — perhaps through a negotiated agreement with Iraq's neighbours.
But talks have been ongoing for years and no lasting deal has been made to ensure equitable water sharing.