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Strains on ancient Mesopotamian marshes imperil ecology, way of life

The marshes in southern Iraq have a unique ecosystem but face dangers due to climate change, dams built upstream and decades of war and mismanagement.
Iraq marsh

Peering beyond the towering reedbeds, Abbas Al-Mousawi watches his buffaloes drink from the putrid waters of the Chibayish marsh. Each sip his animals take raises his anxiety. “It’s almost impossible to find a clean pool here,” says the 45-year-old breeder as he paddles his mashouf – a traditional boat similar to a canoe. “The water is just bad. It gushes out of waste pipes into the swamp. It’s disgusting.” 

Mousawi and his animals live in the Mesopotamian Marshes, a fabled corner of Iraq known throughout the ages as a waterway that could sustain man and beast and populations across the country’s southern deserts. Until recent decades, it offered a vast and reliable supply of water, the end of the line for Iraq’s two great rivers after their epic journeys through Turkey, Syria and Iraq’s deserts.

But, perhaps more than any other time in history, the marshes are in peril. Prolonged drought, regional standoffs, political negligence and climate change are combining to create intolerable stress on one of the region’s most important ecosystems.

What was once a pristine waterway is now a toxic wasteland. Whatever water reaches the marshes is considered a public health risk. The United Nations has classified Iraq as the fifth-most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. The effects have been clear over the past 15 years, with lower rainfalls, and longer and hotter heat waves. In some years, water has barely covered 30 percent of the original wetlands, which were replaced by dry cracking earth that locals had never seen before.

The shortage was in part caused by dams blocking the flow of the Euphrates before it continued its journey south. Sporadic rains also played a part. But more concerning for farmers like Mousawi was the state of the water when it reached him. “All around the sewerage pipes, most of the fish die,” he says, pointing to the rotting fish floating near the surface. “What are we going to see in the future?” 

Beyond the current mismanagement, Iraq’s brutal history has cast a long shadow over the marshes. During the 1980s, eight years of war with Iran razed his nearby village. His mudhif, a hut built from reeds, was destroyed. The area, a heritage site that some believe was the biblical Garden of Eden, became one of the main battlegrounds of the war. 

As famine and repression spread, many of the Ma’dan — the indigenous population also known as the Marsh Arabs — left. Mousawi’s family, however, decided to stay and start again. But the worst was yet to come.

In the early 1990s, after a Shi’a insurrection against his Sunni-led Ba’ath party, Saddam Hussein intentionally drained the marshes to punish the Ma’dan for their alleged participation. His use of water as a weapon threatened the very survival of one of the world’s largest inland wetlands and the communities that lived around them. 

From an average of its original 3,725 square miles (9,650 square kilometers), the wetlands shrunk by 90 percent, turning a natural oasis into a barren strip of land. Mousawi and his family fled south to Basra. “I left believing that I would see my home flourish again soon,” he says. “But I was wrong.” For 13 years, he lived in a poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, struggling to make ends meet by catching fish in nearby streams.

When the dikes Saddam’s regime had built to block the rivers were destroyed after the 2003 US-led invasion, the water returned. International environmental agencies helped breathe life back into the marshes, and Mousawi re-embraced his village. 

Yet nearly two decades later, the marshes’ survival is once again in jeopardy, threatened by multiple crises with no ready solutions.

According to the United Nations, dams built by neighboring Iran and Turkey have reduced the combined volume of the Tigris and the Euphrates by up to 60 percent. A severe drought in 2018 led to water levels dropping by more than three feet. Then, the country’s 2020-2021 rainfall season — the second-driest in 40 years — spiked salinity in the wetlands to dangerous levels. Since then, Mousawi’s buffaloes’ milk has become thick and it has lost quality, cutting his yield in half.  

“In 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that rising temperatures would decrease annual rainfall, leading to greater water scarcity,” said Jassim Al-Asadi, who runs Nature Iraq Chibayish office. “Urgent actions are required. But the message has fallen on deaf ears.”

Iraq’s short-term predictions of water availability do not augur well. The UNEP suggested that the water available to the country would drop by close to 20 percent over the decade ending in 2025, threatening the long-term stability of agriculture and industry.

“The marshlands are not only magnificent landscapes, they are also essential for Iraq’s biodiversity,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General, during her last week visit to the Iraqi site.

If the marshes dry out, the Ma’dan are stranded in a quagmire, and their life is at risk. “Our whole life depends on water,” Mousawi says. “We could never survive without it.”

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