UN food agency issues warning over drought-hit Iraqi marshes

Iraq is experiencing dwindling water supplies and a continuing heatwave with temperatures exceeding 50°C in some areas

The drying marshes of Chibayish, Dhi Qar governorate, in an aerial photo taken on June 24. AFP
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The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has warned of a “grim picture” in the marshes in southern Iraq due to climate change and water scarcity.

Drought-hit Iraq is going through a severe water crisis with supplies dwindling in its main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, coupled with a continuing heatwave in which temperatures are exceeding 50°C in some areas of the country.

This has turned large parts of Iraq, including the fabled wetlands – a Unesco World Heritage Site – into arid areas, forcing many of the occupants to migrate to urban areas.

“The marshes are experiencing the most severe heatwave in the last 40 years, accompanied with a sudden water shortage in the Euphrates river,” the food agency said in a statement late on Monday.

“The dire situation is having a devastating impact on the marshes system; buffalo producers, farmers, and fisheries, forcing many of them to leave their homes and migrate … searching for drinking water, food, feed and employment,” it said.

“Unfortunately, the current situation in July 2023 reflects a grim picture,” it warned, expressing concerns over the “grave consequences” of climate change and the shortage in water.

The marshlands – immortalised in Iraq by images of reed buildings known as mudhifs and in the West by the poetic writings of explorer Wilfred Thesiger – have been home to the Marsh Arabs, a minority in the region who have fished and raised water buffalo in the waters for more than 5,000 years, as well as millions of native and migratory birds.

The marshlands are mainly nestled between Tigris and Euphrates in southern Iraq and are considered the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, once famed for rich biodiversity.

During the 1970s, water covered about 9,650 square kilometres in the marshes, rising to 20,000 square kilometres during floods and heavy rain seasons.

Since then the area has been significantly damaged due to the expansion of agriculture and oil exploration, as well as decades of war.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the wetlands suffered devastation when Saddam Hussein diverted the Tigris and Euphrates away from the marshes in retaliation for a failed Shiite uprising.

By 2005, the marshes had regained 40 per cent of their original area and Iraq aimed to recover 5,560 square kilometres

Prominent environmental activist Jassim Al Asadi told The National last week that less than 15 per cent of that target is recovered now.

“The marshes are in a very bad situation today as water flow is decreasing quickly,” Mr Al Asadi, the managing director of the NGO Nature Iraq, warned.

In Chebayesh, the home of the central marshes in Thi Qar province, the water level of the Euphrates is only 56cm, and ranges in the marshes between zero to 30cm, the Food and Agriculture Organisation says. The dryness is at a “staggering” rate of 90 per cent, it adds.

Salinity levels at the Euphrates Basin are this month at 3,500-4,500 per litre of total dissolved solids from 3,250 TDS in July last year. In the Central Marshes it jumped to 3,500-6,000 TDS from 3,500-5,000 TDS and in Al Hamar marsh to 4,500-8,000 TDS from 4,000-7,000 TDS for the same period, the FAO said.

Almost 70 per cent of the marshes are devoid of water, it says.

As water levels decline, the concentration of salt rises, rendering it unsuitable for livestock or wildlife consumption.

“The severe water shortage, heatwaves and drought in the marshes have put buffalo producers and the entire ecosystem at a very high risk,” said Salah El Hajj Hassan, FAO Representative in Iraq.

Mr El Hajj Hassan called for urgent short, medium and long-term actions to prevent further destruction and ensure a sustainable future for the marshes.

Iraq is ranked fifth on a list of countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the UN. It is experiencing its worst drought in decades, with temperatures exceeding 50°C in summer- mainly during the months of July and August.

Construction of dams and the diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Iran have 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.

Updated: July 11, 2023, 10:24 AM