Three years ago, the vast swamps of southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province were thriving. Fishermen glided in punts across stretches of still water among vast reed beds, while buffaloes bathed in the green vegetation. But today those wetlands, part of the vast Mesopotamian swamps, have shrunk to narrow channels of polluted water bordered by cracked, salty earth. Hundreds of dried fish dot the banks of the streams, along with the carcasses of water buffaloes poisoned by the saline water. The drought has parched tens of thousands of hectares of fields and orchards and villages are emptying as farmers abandon their land.
Due to their biodiversity and cultural importance, in 2016 the United Nations defined the Mesopotamian wetlands, which historically stretched between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometers in the floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The marshes formed one of the largest inland delta systems in the world, a stunning oasis in an extremely hot and arid environment, home to 22 globally endangered species and 66 endangered bird species.
But now this ecosystem – which includes alluvial salt marshes, marshes and freshwater lakes – is collapsing, due to a combination of meteorological, hydrological and political factors. Rivers are rapidly narrowing, and farmland that once grew quantities of barley and wheat, pomegranates and dates is washing out. The environmental disaster is harming wildlife and driving tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs, who have occupied this area for 5,000 years, to seek livelihoods elsewhere.
Experts warn that unless radical action is taken to ensure the region receives adequate water – and better manages what remains – the wetlands of southern Iraq will disappear, with radical consequences for the entire nation as farmers and pastoralists will abandon their land for already crowded urban areas and the loss of production leads to rising food prices.
The Mesopotamian swamps they are often referred to as the cradle of civilization, as anthropologists believe it was here that mankind began its large-scale transition from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to one of agriculture and settlement some 12,000 years ago. Encompassing four separate marshes, the region has historically been home to a unique range of fish and birdlife, serving as winter habitat for migratory birds and supporting a productive fishery of prawns and finfish.
But in the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein began systematically destroying the marshes, bombing and draining them in order to evict and punish the Marsh Arabs for participating in uprisings against his regime. Eventually, the Iraqi president’s campaign reduced the water levels of the marshes by 90 percent. After the Iraq War, the new government and the Marsh Arabs began dismantling levees and drainage works; a subsequent rehydration project implemented by the United Nations reported restoration of surface water and vegetation 58 percent of the marsh’s original size by 2006. Wildlife began to reappear and by 2020, when the post-Saddam recovery was at its peak, some 250,000 Marsh Arabs had returned to their homeland to resume cane harvesting, growing crops, water buffalo and fish .
The marshes and surrounding buffer zones currently cover some 4,000 square kilometers, but these environmental gains are again undermined as Iraq enters its fourth year of drought. Upstream, in both Turkey and Iran, new dams and diversions continue to proliferate, without international coordination or cooperation, on the rivers that supply nearly all of Iraq’s water.
Last July, the Iraqi government said that its water reserves had decreased by 60% compared to the previous year. The low-lying streams have left vast swamp expanses completely drained. Without water for irrigation, farmers will not plant. With no roots to hold soil, desertification looms.
“The situation in the marshes is now worse than when Saddam was trying to destroy them,” says Hayder A. Al Thamiry, a professor of water resources engineering at Baghdad University who works for the government’s Center for Iraqi Wetlands and Wetlands Restoration . (CRIMW). This is because at that time water still flowed from Iran into the Huwaizah marshes of eastern Iraq, keeping at least that part of the system alive. But since Iran completed construction of a 56-kilometer barrier along its border with Iraq in 2009, water it no longer flows in Huwaizah during times of drought. Now all the marshes, says Al Thamiry, “are suffering a lot”.
Low river flows have knock-on effects on the quality of the water that remains. Today, seawater seeps up to 189 kilometers upstream of the Persian Gulf and has destroyed more than 24,000 hectares of farmland and 30,000 trees. Without freshwater flooding, pollutants from agriculture, the oil and gas industry, and sewage also became more concentrated.
Climate change is, of course, making things worse, decreasing rainfall (Iraq has seen record low rainfall in recent years) and rising temperatures, which accelerate evaporation from reservoirs and streams. According to the United Nations Environment Program, Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change. “There has been consistently less rain, less water, less productivity from the land and an increasing number of dust storms over the past two years,” said Salah El Hajj Hassan, representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. agriculture (FAO) in Iraq .
Bad management also has a price. Iraq’s water infrastructure has not been sufficiently maintained or modernized; unlined ditches and canals leak water into the ground; and power outages hamper pumping and water storage. Often, farmers flood their fields to irrigate, rather than using more thrifty and targeted irrigation methods, and villagers dig illegal wells and divert water from shared rivers.
Falling water levels have caused massive crop losses, making it increasingly difficult for millions of Iraqis to feed their families. According to a poll of households in Anbar, Basra, Dohuk, Kirkuk and Ninewa provinces conducted by the non-profit Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) last summer, a quarter of respondents, in the marshes and beyond, experienced more than 90% crop failure of wheat due to lack of water. One in three households interviewed has reduced the area of land under cultivation and 42% of households stated that the production of barley, fruit and vegetables has decreased compared to the previous harvest season.
From the beginning of last summer to the end of October, more than 2,000 families were forced from their homes by receding marshes, according to FAO’s El-Hajj Hassan. Some of the displaced have moved to swampy areas that still have water, while others have abandoned their traditional way of life and moved to cities such as Basra or Baghdad.
Tensions between those remaining in the marshes are rising, and security advisers believe that water shortages, and in particular the disappearance of the marshes, could affect national security. According to Eimear Hennessy, former risk analyst for G4S Consulting, “the thousands of people who have been uprooted and impoverished by the ongoing crisis in the Mesopotamian swamps are likely more susceptible to recruitment by non-state actors: militias and terrorist groups -” who make promises of an attractive future”.
According to Nature Iraq, the recent drying out of the marshes has triggered a collapse in wildlife diversity, with populations of Binni, a golden-brown fish highly prized by Marsh Arabs, plummeting. “Two thousand officially registered fishermen have lost their source of income and are now unemployed,” Saleh Hadi, the agriculture directorate of Dhi Qar, said in October.
Before the drought, the marbled teal duck, listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, seemed to thrive in the marshes, as did the endangered Basra warbler and Iraq’s native babbler. But as water levels drop, Nature Iraq said, these birds are seen much less frequently.
Livestock also suffer. Water buffaloes, which graze in rivers, now have a hard time finding clean water and sufficient food; thousands died from disease and malnutrition. “Low water levels are having a devastating impact on buffalo farmers,” said Samah Hadid, NRC spokesperson. “The buffalo farmers we’re talking to are getting more and more desperate.”
Like the perspective worsening for communities in Iraq’s wetlands, NGOs are promoting actions that could reduce the impact of the drought, including investments in water filtration and treatment systems for areas with high salinity levels. They are pushing Iraqi authorities, at the national and regional levels, to collect more data on water flows and the impacts of scarcity, and improve groundwater regulation to prevent overpumping, which diminishes groundwater quantity and quality.
The Iraqi government is supplying some wheat farmers with salt-tolerant wheat; farmers are working on drought-tolerant sugar beets; and academics are supporting programs that offer conflict management training to communities that are struggling to share water resources fairly.
For years, Iraq has been negotiating with its upstream neighbors to allow more water to flow across its border, but the situation hasn’t improved. In January 2022, Iraq announced he allegedly sued Iran in the International Court of Justice for cutting off its access to water, but the case did not move forward. Last July, Iraq asked Turkey to increase the amount of water flowing south to Iraq. Both sides agreed that an Iraqi “technical delegation” would visit Turkey to assess water levels behind Turkish dams, but Turkey has not accepted responsibility for Iraq’s water shortages. Conversely, the Turkish ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Güney, accused the Iraqis of “squandering” their water resources and called on the nation to reduce water waste and modernize its irrigation systems.
The new year is expected to bring below average rainfall to the region, second the United Nations World Food Program and FAO. With the impacts of climate change worsening and no foreseeable improvement in water management, the outlook for Iraq’s Mesopotamian wetlands and the communities that depend on them look bleak.