Tigris River


In the marshes, death: The unique wetlands of Iraq suffering environmental disaster.

As a result of drought, hunger, displacement, and simmering conflict are occurring in communities that have been supported by rivers and lakes since the beginning of civilization.

The Huwaiza marshes in southern Iraq are fed by the Toos River, a Tigris tributary. This marshland locale was named an Unesco world legacy site in 2016. There are thousands of tourists who visit its cultural center; However, just a few hundred meters past the cultural center, the river turns into a shallow swamp where tiny grebes and herons stand in water that barely covers half of their stick-like legs.

The scene was devastating, as the foliage on the two banks also vanished: Two years earlier, what had been a vast expanse of blue water, a lagoon that was home to large herds of water buffaloes, wildlife, and fish, had become a flat desert with a few thorny shrubs sprouting.

Tumbleweed was kicked across the yellow, dry earth by the scorching wind, leaving deep cracks and crumbling into fine dust beneath the feet. The marsh dwellers had constructed their homes on mounds of dead reed beds that rose above the ground. Their former possessions were scattered about: a kettle, some rusting metal pipe, and broken plastic buckets.

A small illustration of the unprecedented environmental catastrophe that is taking place in Iraq is the destruction of nearly 3,000 square kilometers (1,000 square miles) of this unique ecosystem. The country’s water reserves have decreased by half, and the Iraqi ministry of water resources estimates that one quarter of Iraq’s fresh water supply will be lost within the next ten years. Rivers and lakes that had spawned farming communities since the beginning of civilization are now drying up.

Two drought seasons have resulted in the loss of nearly 90% of the most recent harvest in the province of Mosul and the surrounding areas, which are regarded as Iraq’s breadbasket. These droughts have turned large areas of wheat and barley fields into arid lands. Officials anticipate that to continue into the following season.

Farmers began drilling boreholes after rivers and canals ran dry. However, the unregulated use of underground water is severely reducing its quality and level. The illegal drilling of boreholes in the southern part of Samawa has completely destroyed Lake Sawa.

In the meantime, erratic sandstorms that devastate cities and erode the soil are becoming more frequent as a result of the drought and the disappearance of vegetation. Each year, 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) are lost to desertification.

Tens of thousands of people are being forced to flee their homes as a result of the drought. Farmers are also being forced to leave their farms and move to the outskirts of big cities, where they live in shacks. This puts additional strain on an infrastructure that is already in disrepair and contributes to the desertification of agricultural lands. In addition, the competition for water and the unregulated digging of boreholes are igniting local feuds that are threatening to escalate into larger conflicts in a nation with a fragile security situation, abundant weapons, and heavily armed militias.

These environmental catastrophes have numerous and interconnected causes: due to the climate crisis, record-low rainfall and rising temperatures; the significant reduction in the amount of water flowing into Iraq from countries upstream, with Turkey’s extensive dam networks on the Euphrates and Tigris cutting Iraq’s share by sixty percent and Iran, which is nearby, diverting tributaries and other rivers, among other things. Water evaporation is also rising as a result of the rising temperature, which is contributing to the depletion of reservoirs.

The UN Environment Programme’s GEO-6 report identifies Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable nation in the world to extreme temperatures and decreased access to food and water. The World Bank projects that average temperatures will rise by 2 degrees Celsius and rainfall will fall by 9 percent by 2050.

In the last two decades, Iraq’s population has nearly doubled, and it is entirely dependent on the Euphrates and Tigris, as well as other smaller rivers, for drinking water, sanitation, and irrigation. However, in a nation where mismanagement and corruption can transform a dire situation into a catastrophe, outdated irrigation practices and infrastructure that has not received any investment are wasting and polluting any remaining water.

“It was on the edge of the marshes that human history in Iraq began.” Wilfred Thesiger, a British traveler who lived among the Ma’dan, marsh Arabs, in the 1950s, wrote about this. At that time, it was possible to travel across the plains of southern Iraq via a system of rivers, canals, and lagoons that connected the eastern Tigris marshes to the western Euphrates delta central marshes.

The marshes had temperatures up to 4 degrees Celsius lower than those in the surrounding areas, making the unique ecosystem a microclimate that absorbed heat. Additionally, the region was home to exceptional biodiversity. After that came mass agriculture and industrialization, wars that culminated in Saddam Hussein’s assault on the marshes in the 1990s, and now the drought.

Throughout these decades, government officials, including a British colonial officer and Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, saw the dense marshes and dizzying maze of canals as a haven for those opposed to central authority, including African slave revolters in the ninth century, communists and Islamist rebels in modern times, and large numbers of military deserters fleeing conscription.

The city dwellers and farmers in the countryside looked down on the marsh Arabs because they perceived them as dangerous and a haven for criminals.

Former minister for water resources and environmental expert Dr. Hassan al Janabi stated, “The impact of climate change is working as a threat magnifier. But in essence, this is a man-made disaster, in which the marshes are the clear victims, due to misunderstanding of the unique climate and cultural importance of the region.”

He added: “Its destruction is part of the traditional prejudice of the city towards the countryside, and especially against the marsh people who have always been the victims of discrimination and at the receiving end of insults because they raise buffaloes.

“There are hundreds of illegal rivers diverting water towards the lands of influential people who use them for fish farms or irrigating their lands. We have lost 80% of the buffaloes because of mismanagement.”

A local activist pointed out two large fish ponds and an illegally dug canal that siphons water into nearby agricultural lands, all belonging to a powerful local tribal sheikh, just north of the Toos, which is supposed to feed water into the Huwaiza marsh. Even the Toos’ trickle of water had dried up in the past month.

The amount of water allotted to each province for irrigation is decided by a ministry in Baghdad; agriculture consumes nearly 65 percent of the water. Competition has increased as a result of the severe drought, with weaker communities, like marsh dwellers, being sacrificed for more powerful communities.

“This is a crime that is taking place right in front of our eyes,” said Janabi. “The marshes are the true historical lineage of Mesopotamia but these groups which have lived here for thousands of years see their way of life being eradicated for the benefit of rice cultivators, which in reality has zero economical impact as we import 95% of our rice.”

The scenes of drought and destruction are repeated in the Chibayish, the central marshes in the Euphrates basin. In today’s landscape of vast swaths of desert, what was once a vast network of marshes has been reduced to a few isolated ponds of stagnant brackish water that smell of dead fish and are highly polluted. The long, graceful mashoof boats that once navigated these waters are now covered in salt and dried mud and lie on their sides.

Abdul Sattar and his two sons hid from the scorching heat in a small mud room with only two reed mats on the dirt floor on the edge of one of these ponds. Outside the small window, a shabby air conditioner was churning hot air loudly.

When asked about the effects of the drought, Abdul pondered in silence for some time while the oldest son, a lean young man in his 20s, served tea. He spoke quickly and with a heavy guttural accent. He claimed that a dozen of his buffaloes had perished over the past few months, and the ones that were left were too small to be sold. He went on to say, “If I butcher them and sell them as meat, they will fetch more,” He pulled at the worn brim of his soiled and muddy dishdasha.

He looked suspiciously at anyone coming from the city, in his 40s, with a pale face and bronze skin that had been battered and withered by the harsh Iraqi sun. His feet were cracked and covered in mud. He claimed that because of the drought, the buffaloes were unable to eat on their own and were reliant on any food he could provide.

“They used to go out and graze for a week or two on the green reeds and other vegetation and only come back when they needed to be milked,” he said. “Now I have to feed them, each needs half a tonne of fodder a week, but I can barely afford half of that. Mothers don’t even produce enough milk to feed their calves.”

He said that his family was going hungry so that he could feed the buffaloes to barely keep them alive and looked across the room at his youngest son, a 12-year-old asleep under a blanket in a weak attempt to hide from the buzzing flies.

Even when the buffaloes find small mud pools in which to luxuriate, they refuse to consume the highly polluted water. He said he had to drive to the nearby town to buy the drinking water he shared with his family and his buffaloes and pointed to the jug of yellowish-brackish water that was sitting in front of him.

The marshes where his family kept their buffalo had dried up before; that was in 1994, following Saddam Hussein’s effort to dry the marshes. When he was a young man, he went with his family as they moved north. They took refuge on the banks of the Tigris south of Baghdad, and he came back after the regime fell, when restoring the marshes became a political priority. “Reviving the marshes was the only thing we got after the [regime] change, and even that is gone now.”

Three buffaloes with an emaciated appearance sat in a small muddy pond outside the mud room. A larger herd was nearby, resting under a metal canopy in the shade. Abdul claimed that his tribe’s buffaloes were so beloved to them that they gave them individual names and lived with them for generations.

“These animals, they mean a lot for us, they are like family. We pain when we see them wither and die in front of our eyes,” he said. “I swear if I knew how to do anything else I would, but me and my father, and his father before him, knew nothing but how to raise buffaloes.”

People are tethered to their lands by agriculture, which contributes to the maintenance of the vegetation coverage required to lessen the impact of sandstorms, soil erosion, and global warming. Agriculture also employs nearly one-fifth of Iraq’s workforce.

However, the drought and subsequent crop failures are forcing thousands of families—20,000 since 2021, according to estimates from the International Organization for Migration—to move toward the big cities instead of their lands.

Karar and his family live in a small hut made of concrete blocks in a quiet neighborhood north of Basra, under an overpass. His roof, like those of his neighbors, is constructed of corrugated plastic and metal sheets held in place by large rocks and blocks. The sewage from the neighborhood flows through a wide, deep ditch, where trash and plastic bottles float on an unpleasant, metallic-green liquid.

The drought has transformed his hardship into poverty, just as it has for many of the farmers of Amara and Nassiriya, who at one point constituted the poorest people in Iraq.

According to him, a few years ago, he realized that farming was losing its way in his village, which is located north of the Huwaiza marsh. He had to irrigate his fields with a diesel pump because the water levels were dropping. “The money we got, we paid on gas for the water pumps. We were going hungry,” he said.

As a result, he moved to this neighborhood after selling the few animals he had—a few buffaloes and sheep—and working as a day laborer to make ends meet in the shadow of Basra’s booming oil-fueled economy.

He stated that he was fortunate to leave the area before the worst of the drought struck. Now, when my brothers call me, they say, “Now, my brothers call me and say we wish we left the land and came with you then because now no one wants to buy our buffaloes because they are too skinny.”

The environmental catastrophe takes on a different form in Seeba, on the southernmost tip of Iraq. Its fertile orchards and fields had been home to dense palm tree plantations for centuries on the western banks of Shatt al-Arab, the waterway formed when the Euphrates and Tigris met. The natural flow of water from Shatt al-Arab through its canals is controlled by the Gulf’s high and low tides.

Seeba became a battleground and frontline during the Iran war. The palm plantations were destroyed by tanks and artillery, trenches were dug, fields of barbed wire were stretched, and thousands of young Iraqi and Iranian soldiers perished there. However, once the war was over, people returned to their homes and began reviving their land, eventually restoring many of its palm groves.

Ridha, a young farmer from the area, said as he pointed to the Abadan refinery’s shining towers across the waterway, “If you came here in the 90s, you wouldn’t be able to see Abadan,”

However, things began to shift after 2004, when lower levels of water flowing from the Euphrates and Tigris made it possible for seawater from the Gulf to penetrate the Shatt al-Arab deeper and deeper. In 2018, seawater reached Basra itself for the first time, triggering widespread unrest.

“Since 2009, Seeba has been a disaster zone, and most of our farmlands have disappeared because of the catastrophic rise in water salinity,” an official in the town said.

The official stated that this location reflected the precise causes of the northern drought. From Turkey’s reduction of the volume of water flowing through the Tigris and Euphrates to Iran’s diversion of tributary rivers like the Karun and the discharge of raw sewage and chemicals from the oil industry into Shatt al-Arab as a result of global warming. “Even the upstream provinces are taking Basra’s share of fresh water because of the expansion of their population.”

The palm trees are currently dying as a result of the high salinity of the water that naturally flows through the irrigation canals. “All the water pumps on the riverbanks were cancelled, and farmers are blocking their own canals,” said the official. “Now we get some water pumped from upstream through pipes, or we buy it in trucks. In 2012 the state allocated compensations for the farmers that they have yet to receive 10 years later.”

As a result of politicians in Baghdad and Basra accusing each other of receiving kickbacks and commissions, a massive desalination project for Gulf seawater had been put on hold for years. “From a million palm trees in the 1970s, now we have less than 10,000. Farming here is living now by the drip.”

Ridha, who was tall, thin, had a moustache, and was dressed in a black dishdasha and a red checked kufiya around his head. He pointed to the palm trees in his orchard, each of which was named after a date variety: Khistawi, barhi, and braim…” However, the polluted water caused the majority of these valuable palm trees to die, cutting off their tops and long branches and bending their trunks into a wilting stump.

He pointed to a canal that was winding its way through the dead trees. “The water is killing our palms,” he said. “Back in the 1990s we swam in these rivers, used the water for drinking and cooking, but now farmers are blocking their irrigation canals to prevent the poisonous water from entering their fields. Those who still want to farm have to buy trucks of water, but most are just abandoning the lands and getting a government job with the police or the Hashed [Shia paramilitary units].”

Ridha pointed to a large herd of buffaloes, yet another problem contributing to the environmental disaster in the region. The Ma’dan owners moved their herds here because the drought had destroyed the marsh habitat to the north. They settled them in the fields and in the irrigation canals, which are now inactive. They now pose a serious threat to the farmers.

A large group of buffaloes were submerged in a swamp behind the banks of a wide irrigation canal with green waters and rows of decapitated palm trees.

Ridha said they were worse than the plague as she looked at them. He stated, “They are destroying the land,” he said. “Their owners let them roam freely. They are heavy, and they break the earth, flood the area and turn the farms into swamps. Sometimes they break into orchards and feed on the young palm saplings; no fence can stand against them.”

The old conflicts between the farmers and the well-armed Ma’dan are exacerbated by the environmental collapse. “If the farmers shoot at them or kill a buffalo, the owners will come armed and start a fight, and we can’t fight them,” said Ridha, “and now only the army can save us.”


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