When water levels fell in the swamps this summer, the water in the swamp became too salty for the water buffalo to drink. // Mootaz Sami for NPR
CHIBAISH, Iraq – A water buffalo with swollen belly and sunken hips is dying on a dry expanse of cracked earth. Her calf brushes her nose but she doesn’t respond. A few meters away, another water buffalo, all skin and bones, wallows in the mud at the edge of the dry waters of the marsh.
The people who keep these animals in the swamps of southern Iraq are unable to save them. The drought and extreme temperatures that scientists link with climate change alter the habitat around them and slowly put an end to a way of life as old as civilization itself.
This once fertile land of reed groves and deep streams was part of ancient Mesopotamia, often referred to as the cradle of human civilization. For thousands of years, people have lived off the fish and water buffaloes of these fertile swamps.
This year, extreme heatwaves and low rainfall are turning parts of these fragile wetlands into such a hostile place that communities who have lived there for generations are struggling to stay. The whole swampy area, which once covered up to Over 7,000 square miles, has decreased considerably over time.
The parties always seem idyllic. On a visit in October, in the soft light of dawn, it was easy to see why some researchers believe these waterways were the original inspiration for the Biblical Garden of Eden. Herons dive to fish in the dark waters, and the sunrise meets a cacophony of birdsong. Black and white warblers and kingfishers streak among the green reeds.
These reeds form the canopies of simple shelters where families sleep and live alongside their animals on small islands. They get up at dawn and start milking their water buffaloes. Then, they load containers of frothy liquid into rickety wooden boats and rush to the nearby town of Chibaish to sell the fresh milk at the market.
Meanwhile, with a loud crash of splashing water, the herds of water buffalo make their way to the swamp waters where they spend their days wallowing in the coolness, their snouts barely visible above. the waterline.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen, the animals return to feed and lie down on dry land, near people. Families often name each water buffalo in their herds and come to identify their individual traits.
But a short boat ride away from these tranquil scenes, the swamps present a very different view.
Temperatures in Iraq are rising faster than on Earth
The fertile swamp comes to a halt. It gives way to a vast expanse of terracotta of which only shrubs and dried reeds remain. Without birds, and animals and humans have fled, the silence is disturbing.
There have been periodic droughts and dry summers here. But Razaq Jabar, a fisherman who was hired as an NPR guide in October, says he’s never seen this area dry out so completely. “The families living in this region are all gone,” he says. “There are no fish, no reeds, no life.”
Iraq depends on the Tigris and Euphrates for 90% of its fresh water. But years of decrease in precipitation in the region force countries to compete for this ever-diminishing resource. In recent years, dam projects in Turkey and Iran have reduced water levels reaching downstream Iraq.
The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources says that river water flows in Iraq have declined by more than a third between the 1970s and today. Meanwhile, the country’s average annual temperatures increase at almost double the rate of Earth.
A study used by the United Nations Environment Program found that Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to declining food and water availability, extreme temperatures and associated health problems.
United Nations experts say Iraq is lose some 155 miles of arable land every year to desertification and soil erosion. Hameed al-Nayef, spokesman for Iraq’s agriculture ministry, told NPR that the drought conditions this year are so bad that the country can only produce on about half of the land it would normally produce.
In southern Iraq, reduced river flows have caused the intrusion of saltwater currents from the Persian Gulf further upstream, altering the freshwater of Iraqi marshes protected by UNESCO. Experts say evaporation caused by extreme heat aggravates the problem.
“These are the worst conditions we have ever experienced,” says Majed Hameed, 25, a water buffalo herder in a community that lives on the edge of one of the dry expanses.
People leave and animals get sick
Temperatures in southern Iraq have exceeded 125 degrees Fahrenheit in recent years.
In the swamps, where there is no electricity for air conditioning or fans, many women and children have fled the heat to stay with relatives in the cities.
“Even the water in the swamp got so hot,” Hameed says. “It looked like fire – like it was boiling.”
As its levels dropped, the water in the swamp became too salty for the water buffalo to drink. Hameed and other herders were forced to boat freshwater for animals from a river near the town of Chibaish.
Lots of water buffalo got sick, he says. The reduced waters of the swamp contained more than usual levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Breeders also say their animals have developed worms.
With limited access to veterinary care, the water buffalo began to die in numbers. Every swamp family NPR spoke to said they lost more bison than usual last summer.
After a year of debating with himself, as he watched his surroundings dry up, Hameed says he made the difficult decision to leave. In October, he sold three water buffaloes. He plans to use the income to buy a van and move to the town of Amara, where he will work delivering food for agriculture and other products.
“This life has just become too difficult,” he says.
Others are trying to move to other parts of the swamps that have not dried up. But they say it’s harder and harder to find good places to settle with room for their buffaloes, and herders are increasingly concentrating in shrinking swamp areas.
In a country where years of war have already uprooted many lives, displacement for climatic and environmental reasons is now becoming a common reality. In July 2019, the International Organization for Migration reported after identifying 21,314 people displaced within the governorates of southern and central Iraq – where the swamps are located – due to lack of access to drinking water.
Many are migrating to Iraqi cities, putting additional pressure on urban areas that already suffer from poor municipal services and infrastructure.
Those who have left are forced to adapt to life outside the swamps
In the impoverished town of Nasiriyah, about 100 kilometers from his original home in the swamps, Hameed Hassab Ali works as a taxi driver in an attempt to support his nine children.
As temperatures in the swamps soared and rainfall declined year after year, climate change became “a central topic of discussion in our family or tribal gatherings,” says Ali. “When we discussed our difficulties with local government officials, they told us that they had no solution because this is a problem that goes beyond Iraq’s borders.”
As a fisherman in the swamps, Ali had to deal with the dwindling stock. After his father’s death in 2017, he received a share of the sale of his father’s house and saw the opportunity to leave.
Now he lives in a poorly furnished house in a poor neighborhood. “As you can see, it’s a poor neighborhood, without even a cobblestone street. But what can I do? This is what I can afford.”
Each month, Ali repays part of the loan he took out to buy the taxi he drives. Income is very tight, but at least in town he has a house with electricity and a fan he can help his family keep cool with.
Sometimes he longs for the life he left behind: “I miss my community and the tribal reunion where we meet for coffee and talk. I miss the abundance of fish and birds. this life in these good times. “
But he knows that even if he were to return to the swamps, those good times are over.