Salt and drought decimate buffalo in southern Iraqi marshes

CHIBAYISH, Iraq (AP) — 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 don’t return from roaming the swamps of this part of Iraq, they must be dead.

Dry earth is cracked underfoot and thick layers of salt coat the withered reeds in the Chibayish Wetlands amid this year’s dire shortage of fresh water flowing from the Tigris River.

Hashem has already lost five of his 20-year-old buffalo herd since May, weakened by starvation and poisoned by salt water seeping into the low-lying marshes. Other buffalo farmers in the area say their animals are either dead or produce milk that is unsuitable for sale.

“This place was full of life,” she 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 that prevails elsewhere in the Middle East – were reborn after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when dams he built to drain the area and uproot the Shiite rebels were dismantled.

But today, drought that experts say is being brought on by climate change and the salt invasion, coupled with a lack of 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 Food and Agriculture Organization – have pushed buffalo herders deeper into poverty and debt, forcing many out of their homes. their homes and migrate to neighboring cities to look for work.

Rural communities dependent on agriculture and pastoralism have long been alienated by Baghdad officials, perpetually engaged in political crises. And when the government introduced tough water rationing policies this year, people in the region became 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 upstream neighbor Turkey have dwindled, hampered by intransigence and often conflicting political alliances in Iraq.

In the swamps, where raising water buffaloes has been the way of life for generations, anger at the government is palpable.

Hamza Noor has found a spot where a trickle of fresh water flows. The 33-year-old sets out five times a day in his small boat through the marshes, filling water tanks and bringing it back for his animals.

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

“I don’t know of any other work,” he said.

Ahmed Mutliq, feels the same way. The 30-year-old grew up in swamps and says he’s seen dry spells years before.

“But nothing compares to this year,” he said. He urged authorities to release more water from upstream reservoirs, blaming northern provinces and neighboring countries for “getting their water from us”.

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

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

Iraq relies on the Tigris-Euphrates River basin for drinking water, irrigation and sanitation for its entire population of 40 million people. Conflicting claims to the basin, which stretches from Turkey and through Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq, have complicated Baghdad’s ability to craft a water plan.

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

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

Iraq’s annual water plan prioritizes setting aside enough drinking water for the nation, then supplying the agricultural sector, and also dumping enough fresh water into swamps to minimize salinity. This year the amounts have been halved.

Salinity in the marshes has further increased with Iran’s water stress diverting water from its Karkheh River, which also feeds Iraq’s marshes.

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

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

Two officials at the Iraqi foreign ministry’s legal department, which handles complaints against other countries, said attempts to engage with Iran over water sharing had been stopped by the top brass, including the then Iraqi foreign ministry’s office. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

“They told us not to talk to 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 assistance for Iraq to upgrade its aging water infrastructure and modernize ancient agricultural practices.

The US Geological Survey has trained Iraqi officials to read satellite imagery to “strengthen Iraq’s hand in negotiations with Turkey,” said a US diplomat, who was also unnamed due to ongoing negotiations.

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

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

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