Livestock loss and skin diseases plague the Iraqi marshes Unesco World Heritage Site

Fate of the famed wetlands hangs in the balance after unprecedented decline in water levels

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The once-vibrant and thriving Iraqi marshes, a Unesco World Heritage Site, are on the brink of another disaster as shrinking water levels, rampant salinity, and contaminated pools ravage the delicate ecosystem.

Inhabitants of the marshlands, such as Rasool Nouri, are witnessing first hand the devastating consequences, including the loss of livestock, the outbreak of skin diseases, and the absence of clean, life-sustaining water.

“The situation is very bad,” Mr Nouri, 27, tells The National. “The water crisis has not only affected our cattle and fish, but us as a community.”

For centuries, the marshes of southern Iraq served as a haven of rich biodiversity, supporting a unique way of life for its residents and providing a crucial habitat for countless species.

But over the past few decades, a combination of human activity, such as oil exploration, and natural factors have pushed these marshlands to the edge of collapse.

Mr Nouri, a long-time dweller of the marshes, speaks with a heavy heart about the visible changes taking place. "I remember a time when the water stretched as far as the eye could see," he says. "Now, it is a mere fraction of what it once was."

The primary factor contributing to the drying up of the marshes is the decline in the amount of water flowing from Iraq's Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In turn this increases salinity levels in the water remaining.

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

The increasing salinity and the catastrophic decline in the availability of fresh water have led to the loss of cattle that rely on the marshes for their drinking water.

Last year, the Abu Khasaf area in Al Hawizeh marshland, where Mr Nouri lives, lost up to 150 buffalos from a population of about 500.

Since then, Mr Nouri has seen the number of his own cattle decrease, from 30 to only six now.

Earlier this month, the Iraqi Environment Ministry warned that Al Hawizeh, one of the biggest marshes that straddles the Iraq-Iran border, "is facing an environmental catastrophe due to drought", and demanded that the Water Resources Ministry release more water. But the government is prioritising agriculture needs and providing drinking water to citizens.

“The situation is unbearable,” says Mr Nouri who lives nearby with 13 other family members.

To make matters worse, stagnant pools of water have become a breeding ground for diseases because of the lack of fresh water circulating and the presence of dead animals, often left in the water.

The remaining water has turned green and there is a stench, we can’t even take a bath or wash our clothes and we, as well as animals, are being affected by skin diseases
Marshes resident

The lack of clean water for basic hygiene has led to a surge in skin diseases among residents, exacerbating an already dire situation.

“The remaining water has turned green and there is a stench, we can’t even take a bath or wash our clothes and we, as well as animals, are being affected by skin diseases,” he adds.

Environmental experts point to a range of causes behind the decline in water levels.

Dams and water diversions along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Turkey and Iran, combined with climate change-induced droughts, have severely reduced the flow of water into the marshes.

Additionally, extensive drainage projects carried out in the past have disrupted the natural flow of water, compounding the problem.

“The marshes are in a very bad situation today as water flow is decreasing quickly,” prominent environmental activist Jassim Al Asadi tells The National.

“July and August will be harsh ones with increasing temperatures that will lead to evaporation amidst low water flow,” says Mr Al Asadi, the managing director of the NGO Nature Iraq.

Last year, inhabitants lost about 25 per cent of their cattle while fishermen lost about 90 per cent of fish as they continue to move in the marshes, seeking areas with abundant fresh water, he added.

“This summer will be dangerous for agriculture and marshes,” says Mr Al Asadi, because the situation is expected to get worse with consistent temperature rises.

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 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.

By 2005, the marshes had regained 40 per cent of their original area and Iraq aimed to recover 5,560 square kilometres. Mr Al Assadi estimates that less than 15 per cent of that target is covered now.

This summer will be a dangerous one for agriculture and marshes
Jassim Al Asadi, environment activist

In 2016, the marshlands were made a Unesco World Heritage Site for their biodiversity and ancient history.

But the dire state of the famed Iraqi marshes has prompted local and international conservationists to rally for urgent action. Non-government organisations and government agencies are now collaborating to address the crisis and restore the marshlands to their former glory.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani on Wednesday ordered tankers with portable water to be sent to affected areas across the country, including the marshes.

The challenges are immense, and a collective response is essential to save these invaluable wetlands.

Conservationists are urging the government, international organisations, and local communities to join forces and commit to long-term plans that prioritise the restoration and preservation of the Iraqi marshes.

The revitalisation of this fragile ecosystem not only holds ecological significance but also secures the livelihoods and well-being of countless residents who depend on its resources for survival.

As Mr Nouri gazes out over the shrinking marshes, he voices a sentiment shared by many: "We must act swiftly, the marshes are not just our home; they are our heritage, our identity. Without them, a part of us dies too."

He says he will continue to move from one place to another within the marshes but will not move to an urban area.

“The problem is that I was born in the marshes and it’s hard to live in the city, I feel suffocated,” he adds.

Updated: July 08, 2023, 5:26 AM