Salt and drought are decimating buffaloes in the swamps of southern Iraq

CHIBAYISH, Iraq — Abbas Hashem fixed his worried gaze on the horizon – the day was almost over and still, there was no sign of the last of his water buffaloes. He knows that when his animals do not return from roaming the swamps of this part of Iraq, they must be dead.

Dry land is cracked underfoot and thick layers of shriveled reeds blanketed in salt in the Chibayish wetlands amid severe shortages of fresh water this year from the Tigris.

Hashem has already lost five buffaloes from his herd of 20 since May, weakened by hunger and poisoned by salt water seeping into the low marshes. Other bison ranchers in the area say their animals have also died or are producing unsaleable milk.

“This place was once full of life,” he said. “Now it’s a desert, a cemetery.”

The wetlands – a lush remnant from the cradle of civilization and a stark contrast to the desert prevailing elsewhere in the Middle East – were reborn after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when dams he had built to drain the area and root out the Shiite rebels were dismantled.

But now the drought that experts say is caused by climate change and salt invasion, coupled with the lack of a political agreement between Iraq and Turkey, is endangering the marshes surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq.

This year, severe water shortages – the worst in 40 years, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization – have pushed bison ranchers deeper into poverty and debt, forcing many to leave their homes and migrate to nearby towns in search of work.

Rural communities that depend on agriculture and livestock have long been estranged from authorities in Baghdad, perpetually embroiled in political crises. And when the government introduced tough water rationing policies this year, people in the area grew even more desperate.

Oil-rich Iraq has failed to rebuild the country’s antiquated water supply and irrigation infrastructure and hopes for a water-sharing deal for the Tigris with its upstream neighbor, the Turkey, have declined, hampered by intransigence and often conflicting political allegiances in Iraq.

In the swamps, where water buffalo herding has been the way of life for generations, the anger towards the government is palpable.

Hamza Noor has found a plot where a trickle of fresh water is flowing. The 33-year-old sets out five times a day in his small boat through the swamps, filling canisters with water and bringing it back for his animals.

Between Noor and his two brothers, the family has lost 20 buffaloes since May, he said. But unlike other shepherds who left for the city, he stayed.

“I don’t know of any other job,” he says.

Ahmed Mutliq, feels the same. The 30-year-old grew up in the swamps and says he has already experienced periods of drought years ago.

“But nothing compares to this year,” he said. He urged authorities to release more water from reservoirs upstream, accusing northern provinces and neighboring countries of “taking water away from us”.

Provincial officials, disempowered in Iraq’s highly centralized government, have no answers.

“We feel embarrassed,” said Salah Farhad, the agriculture director of Dhi Qar province. “Farmers are asking us for more water, and we can’t do anything about it.”

Iraq depends on the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin for drinking water, irrigation and sanitation for its entire population of 40 million. Competing claims to the basin, which stretches from Turkey and crosses Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq, have complicated Baghdad’s ability to develop a body of water.

Ankara and Baghdad were unable to agree on a fixed rate for the Tigris. Turkey is bound by a 1987 agreement to release 500 cubic meters per second to Syria, which then shares the water with Iraq.

But Ankara has failed to meet its obligation in recent years due to falling water levels, and rejects any future sharing deal that requires it to release a fixed number.

Iraq’s annual water plan prioritizes the reserve of enough drinking water for the nation first, then supplying the agricultural sector and also evacuating enough water. fresh water in marshes to minimize salinity. This year, the amounts have been reduced by half.

Salinity in the swamps has increased further, with water-stressed Iran diverting water from its Karkheh River, which also feeds the Iraqi swamps.

Iraq has made even less progress on sharing water resources with Iran.

“With Turkey, there is a dialogue, but a lot of delays,” said Hatem Hamid, who heads the key department of Iraq’s water ministry responsible for formulating the water plan. “With Iran, there is nothing.”

Two officials from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry’s legal department, which handles complaints against other countries, said attempts to engage with Iran over water sharing had been halted by officials including the office. then Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

“They told us not to tell Iran about it,” one of the officials said. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss legal issues.

Iraq’s needs are so dire that several Western countries and humanitarian organizations are trying to provide development aid to Iraq to upgrade its aging water infrastructure and modernize old agricultural practices.

The US Geological Survey trained Iraqi officials to read satellite images to “strengthen Iraq’s hand in negotiations with Turkey”, a US diplomat said, also speaking anonymously due to the ongoing negotiations.

As the sun set over Chibayish, Hashem’s buffalo never returned – the sixth animal he lost.

“I have nothing without my buffaloes,” he said.

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