© Reuters Sabah Thamar Al-Bahar Chebayesh Marsh, Dhi Qar Province, Iraq August 15, 2021 sitting at his home. According to the United Nations, Iraq’s 2020-2021 rainy season was the second driest in 40 years, causing salinity to rise in wetlands.
By Charlotte Bruno and Thayer Al-Sudani
Chebayesh Marshes, Iraq (Reuters) – On an island surrounded by the narrow waterways of Chebayesh Marshes in southern Iraq, Sabah Thamar Al-Bahar rises with the sun to milk his water buffalo herd.
It was a tough summer for a father of two. According to the United Nations, Iraq’s 2020-2021 rainy season was the second driest in years, with dangerous wetlands salinity rising.
The animals fell ill and died, and Bahar was forced to buy fresh drinking water for a herd of about 20 buffaloes, his only source of income.
Climate change, pollution and upstream dams have plunged Iraq into a cycle of repeated water crises, with another drought forecast for 202 for the year.
“Wetlands are our life. If the drought continues, our existence will stop, because our whole lives depend on water and water buffalo rearing,” said Baher, 37.
Bahar and his family are the Marsh Arabs, the indigenous people of the wetlands that Saddam Hussein overthrew in the 1980s and drove out the rebels by throwing out the wetlands.
After its fall in 2003, the wetlands were partially replenished and many marsh Arabs, including the Bahar family, returned.
However, the situation has unbalanced the fragile ecosystem of the wetlands, endangering biodiversity and livelihoods, says wetland-born environmentalist Jassim al-Assad.
“The less water, the saltier it is,” said Christophe Chauvo, a French veterinarian who surveyed wetlands for agronomists and veterinarians without borders, saying buffaloes drink less and produce less milk when water quality decreases.
According to the Max Planck Institute, summer temperatures in the Middle East have risen by more than 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade – almost double the global average.
Iraq’s neighbors are also suffering from drought and rising temperatures, leading to regional water disputes. The Ministry of Water said earlier this year (http://www.reuters.com/business/environment/its-rivers-shrink-iraq-thirsts-regional-cooperation-2021-09-06/) that water flowed from Iran and Turkey There has been a 50 percent decline throughout the summer.
Then there is the matter of pollution coming from upstream. In 2019, the government said 5 million cubic meters of raw sewage water per day was being pumped directly into the Tigris, one of Iraq’s wetland-feeding rivers.
Environmentalist Azam Al-Wash said Iraq’s long-term water management strategy was urgently needed because its rapidly growing population is expected to double to 20 million by 2050.
Aun Dhiab, a spokesman for the water ministry, said the government’s strategy was to conserve deep, permanent reservoirs of wetlands across at least 200,000 square kilometers (1080 square miles).
“We are planning to conserve environmental resources and sustainable reservoirs to protect fish stocks,” he said.
Dhiab said the water level in the wetlands has partially improved since the summer, evaporation is reduced as the temperature decreases and the wetlands shrink and expand naturally depending on the tur.
He added that the government could not allocate more water to the wetlands if there was a shortage of drinking water in the summer.
“Of course the people in the wetlands want more water, but we have to give priority. The priority is to conserve drinking water, municipalities and the Shut Al-Arab River,” he said.
Drought and pollution of the Shut Al-Arab River caused a crisis in southern Iraq in 2018, when thousands of people were hospitalized with waterborne diseases (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-protests-water-idUSKCN1M624L).
The result was punishment for the Marsh Arabs. Sitting her youngest daughter on her lap and drinking buffalo milk from her feeder, Bahar sees her nephews leaning towards the sick buffalo.
In the summer, some of Bahar’s relatives moved their flocks completely to the deepest part of the wetlands, where salinity levels were low, but families were fighting for the best places as they were forced to share the shrinking space.
Estimates of the current wetland population vary widely http://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-heritage-iraq-idUSKCN0ZX0SN. Once 400,000 in the 1950s, about 250,000 people returned when the wetlands were replenished.
The declining water supply has forced farmers to move to the city this year, where the lack of jobs and services has sparked protests in the past, with Bahar, like many other young pastoralists, hoping he can stay here.
“I felt like a stranger in town,” he recalls, when the swamp was drained. “When the water returned to the swamp, we regained our freedom.”