The Iraqi Garden of Eden “like a desert”

Huwaizah Swamp (Iraq) (AFP) – To feed and refresh his buffaloes, Hashem Gassed must cross 10 kilometers (six miles) of sun-scorched land in southern Iraq, where drought is devastating entire swaths of the mythical Mesopotamian marshes.

The reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, the swamps of Iraq have been battered by three years of drought and low rainfall, as well as reduced water flows along rivers and tributaries from the neighboring Turkey and Iran.

Vast swaths of the once-lush Huwaizah swamps, straddling the border with Iran, have been kiln-dried, their vegetation turning yellow. Sections of the Chibayish marshes, popular with tourists, suffer the same fate.

“The swamps are our livelihood – we used to fish here and our cattle could graze and drink,” said Gassed, 35, from a hamlet near Huwaizah.

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The marshes of southern Iraq were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, both for their biodiversity and ancient history.

But now dry creek beds meander around the once verdant wetlands, and the area’s Lake Um al-Naaj has been reduced to puddles of muddy water on largely dry ground.

Like his father before him, Gassed raises buffaloes, but only five of the family’s approximately 30 animals remain.

The others died or were sold as the family struggles to make ends meet.

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Family members watch carefully for those left behind, fearing the weak and malnourished beasts will fall into the mud and die.

“We’ve been protesting for over two years and no one is listening,” Gassed said.

“We don’t know where to go. Our lives are over.”

“More Fish”

Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes suffered under former dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered them drained in 1991 to punish communities protecting insurgents and to hunt them down.

The wetlands have sporadically gone through years of severe drought in the past, before being revived by good rainy seasons.

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But between August 2020 and this month, 46% of swamps in southern Iraq, including Huwaizah and Chibayish, suffered a total loss of surface water, according to the Dutch peacebuilding organization PAX.

According to the organization, which used satellite data to carry out the assessment, 41% of marsh areas suffered from a drop in water levels and humidity.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Iraq said the marshes were “one of the poorest regions in Iraq and one of the most affected by climate change”, warning against “unprecedented low water levels”.

He noted the “disastrous impact” on more than 6,000 families who “lose their buffaloes, their only vital asset”.

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Biodiversity is also threatened.

The swamps are home to “many populations of endangered species” and are an important stopping point for around 200 species of migratory waterbirds, according to UNESCO.

Environmental activist Ahmed Saleh Neema said there were “no more fish”, wild boar or even a subspecies of smooth-haired otter in the marshes.

“Like a desert”

He said the Huwaizah swamps were irrigated by two tributaries of the Tigris, which originates in Turkey, but their flows had dropped.

Iraqi authorities are rationing supplies to cover different needs, he said.

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“The government wants to preserve as much water as possible,” he added, deploring “unequal sharing of water” and “mismanagement (of resources)”.

After pressure from protesters, authorities partially opened the floodgates, he said, but closed them again.

On the Iranian side, the marshes of Huwaizah, called Hoor al-Azim, are also suffering.

“The wetland is facing water stress and currently about half of its Iranian part has dried up,” Iranian state news agency IRNA reported recently.

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Hatem Hamid, who heads the Iraqi government’s water management center, said that “on the Iranian side, the main river that feeds the Huwaizah swamp has been completely cut off for over a year.”

The water needs of Iraqi farms and marshes are only half met, he acknowledged, as authorities closely monitor supplies and try to cover a range of uses, with drinking water being the main source. one of the “priorities”.

Iraqi officials point to canals and small streams that have been rehabilitated to feed swamps – and where some families have left the parched areas.

But it is “impossible to compensate for the very high evaporation in the swamps” at temperatures that exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), he added.

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In Chibayish, the effects of the drought are all too clear to Ali Jawad, who said dozens of families had left his hamlet.

“They migrated to other regions, looking for areas where there is water,” said the 20-year-old.

“Before, when you came to the marshes, there was greenery, water, inner peace,” he added.

“Now it’s like a desert.”