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Iraq’s unique marshlands on the brink of disappearing

  • Iraq’s unique marshlands on the brink of disappearing

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Water resources that have supported communities since the beginning of civilization are drying up as Iraq’s water crisis continues to unfold, threatening the country’s unique wetlands, reports The Guardian.

Iraq’s water shortages have led to increased competition for limited resources and are a risk for the country’s stability. Rural dwellers that have lost their livelihoods have been displaced to the outskirts of cities, putting additional strain on rundown infrastructure. Dwindling surface water supplies have led to groundwater overuse, which led to the disappearance of Lake Sawa in the governorate of Muthanna in the south. Drought and loss of plant cover accelerate desertification, which affects about 40,000 hectares every year.

The Iraqui ministry of water resources has estimated that up to 25% of the freshwater in the country could be lost in the next ten years. In the past two decades, Iraq’s population has almost doubled, while water infrastructure has degraded due to neglect. Dams and diversions of tributaries in upstream countries have reduced the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the country’s main water source. In recent years, low rainfall and high temperatures driven by climate change are also contributing to less water in rivers and aquifers.

But although we might imagine Iraq as a desert, and much of the country has a hot arid climate, the southern part of the country is also home to a unique marsh ecosystem. In the 1950’s it was possible to navigate through a network of rivers and canals that connected the Tigris to the Euphrates delta. The marshes functioned as a microclimate, home to remarkable biodiversity. The marshland region was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, and the Huwaizah, Hammar and Central Marshes have all been designated as Ramsar sites.

As industrialisation and agriculture developed, the marshes degraded; then came the wars and systematic draining in the 1990s by Saddam Hussein’s regime. For decades, the region of marshes and canals was considered a hideout for those opposing the country’s rulers, and people from the city and other regions looked down on locals, the marsh Arabs.

Reflooding and restoration efforts in the 2000s brought back water and some of the biodiversity, but currently climate change is exacerbating what is “a man-made disaster, in which the marshes are the clear victims”, in the words of Dr Hassan al Janabi, a former minister for water resources, who added “its destruction is part of the traditional prejudice of the city towards the countryside, and especially against the marsh people”.

The Huwaiza marsh has dried up, whereas the central Chibayish marshes are also devastated by drought, with only small puddles of polluted water left. Dr Janabi explains that illegal canals divert water for fish farms or irrigation, whereas 80% of the water buffaloes, bred by the marsh Arabs, have been lost. As competition for water resources rises, the interests of powerful users prevail over those of other communities such as the marsh dwellers.

Further sourth, in Seeba, on the banks of Shatt al-Arab, the river formed at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris as they flow into the Persian Gulf, water scarcity is threatening local livelihoods in different ways. The area is home to farmers that live off palm tree plantations, but the reduced water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates have resulted in massive salt intrusion from the Gulf. High salinity is causing the palm trees to die, while buffalo herders displaced from the devastated marsh habitat in the north have settled in the area and are a source of conflict with farmers who claim the animals destroy their plants as they roam freely.

The decline of marsh habitats in southern Iraq has multiple causes originating both within and outside its borders, and consequences that affect the most vulnerable communities but can also reach far beyond, as water insecurity can contribute to conflict risk. Despite efforts to restore the marshes, the impact of dams and diversions on water inputs, pollution and drought in a changing climate are important challenges, and their future is uncertain.

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