BAGHDAD // The Iraqi guards patrolling the frontier with Iran are supposed to be on the lookout for smugglers, drug traders and weapons traffickers. For the past six months, however, the border guards in southern Iraq have spent much of their time trying to keep out another unwanted visitor - polluted water.
According to officials and residents living along the border zone close to Basra, 590 kilometres south of Baghdad, the problem of waste water, thick with salt and toxins, seeping in from Iran has become acute, poisoning the land and making farming all but impossible.
"We just finished putting up a 40km dirt berm along a stretch of the frontier," said Colonel General Dharfar Nathmi Jamal, head of the Iraqi Border Patrol in Basra province. While the berm is intended to have a deterrent effect on smugglers, it is also designed with water in mind.
"The berm will help to stop the waste water draining from Iran and coming straight into Iraq," said Gen Jamal. "We need to limit the pollution of the lands. It's sad but it's now so bad that there will be no wheat production here this year."
The berm project, worth US$82,600 (Dh303,000), is part of a wider plan that also includes the renovation of an old wall between Iran and Iraq, built at the time of their eight-year war in the 1980s. Officials hope that renewed fortification will play a dual role, keeping out unwanted people and water contaminated with salt.
"My job is to protect the country and I will work hard to protect Iraq and its people, whatever the cause of the damage," said Gen Jamal, shrugging off the suggestion that border guards are not employed to protect the environment. "We are supporting the Iraqi farmers and we will continue to do that by trying to keep the polluted water out."
Salinisation of water supplies has had a devastating effect on southern Iraq, a result of drastically reduced flows from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
As the volumes of fresh water coming down these historic channels is cut - largely due to intensive extraction by people further north in Iraq, and in Syria and Turkey - sea water has backed-up into the Shatt Al Arab channel.
The effect on underground reservoirs and agriculture has been severe, forcing many farmers off the land and rendering the water undrinkable. The local government last year had to step in and send tankers of potable water out to residents.
It has also led to thick layers of salt forming on the surface of the land, both on the Iraq and Iranian side of the border, that kill off plant life. To clean the soil for agriculture, the salt must be washed off - but the process of flushing it away only ends up creating more polluted water.
This has become a key area for controversy, with the salty discharge from cleaned land in Iran being channelled across the border into Iraq, rather than properly treated with expensive desalination techniques on the Iranian side.
In the village of Siba, the problem has been worsening since the summer.
"My land is salty because the Iranian push their waste salt water directly onto it," said one farmer, Abu Dham. His entire wheat crop had been destroyed by the salinisation, he said, leaving him with no choice but to leave the land and work in Basra city.
"There are at least 30 other farmers from Siba like me, with the same problem," he said. "We need the Iraqi government to solve the problem."
Last week, Iran's acting foreign minister, Ali Akbar Saleh, was in Baghdad on a working visit with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari. Disputes over water, as well as border demarcations, were high on the agenda.
In addition to the salt discharge, there has been a long-running dispute between Tehran and Baghdad over the Karun and Karkha rivers, both of which have been diverted away from southern Iraq, robbing Basra of crucial supplies of fresh water.
Mr Saleh promised to send research teams out to the areas on the Iranian side of the border, assuring the Iraqi government they would "locate and stop" the problem of saltwater discharge.
Basra's governor, Shiltagh Aboud, said an Iranian engineering team was expected to arrive in the coming weeks to assess the problem.
"They have promised to pump the salty waste water to the Gulf, rather than onto Iraqi lands," he said. "There have been some attempts on the Iranian side to stop the drainage, but the damage is still continuing,"
Mr Aboud warned that even if urgent action were taken, the effects of the pollution would be felt in the area for years to come.
"The impact of this on the environment are long lasting," he said. "It's not an easy matter to rectify and clean up the damage that has been done."