To feed and refresh his buffaloes, Hachem Gassed now has to travel about ten kilometers through arid lands, scorched by the sun. In southern Iraq, drought has washed away entire swathes of Mesopotamian marshes from the mythical Garden of Eden.
In the marshes of Hawizeh, straddling the border with Iran, or those very touristy of Chibayich, vast expanses of wetlands have given way to cracked soils, dotted with yellowing shrubs.
In question: three years of drought, falling rainfall and reduced flow of rivers from neighboring countries, Turkey and Iran, due to dams built upstream.
“Drought affects people as much as animals,” says Hachem Gassed, 35, from a hamlet near Hawizeh.
Around him, the huge lake of Oum al-Naaj has become an arid land. In places, puddles of muddy water and choked rivers remain. We can make out the dry beds of the streams that meandered through the once luxuriant marshes - listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like his father before him, Hashem raises buffaloes. “These marshes are our livelihood: we fished there and our animals could graze and drink there. »
Of the thirty heads of the family herd, only five remain. The other buffaloes died or were sold to make ends meet. Those who remain must be watched: they could drown in the mud, unable to extricate themselves.
Poverty, climate change
The marshes have already experienced years of drought, before prosperous rainy seasons which come to replenish them.
Between 2020 and 2022, in the marshes of southern Iraq, especially those of Hawizeh and Chibayich, 41% of the marshlands suffered from a reduction in water level and a drop in humidity, while that 46% of these areas have lost surface water, according to the Dutch NGO PAX, which is based on satellite data.
Noting "an unprecedented drop in water levels", the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recalls that the marshes are "one of the poorest regions of Iraq and among the most affected by climate change. »
The agency underlines the “disastrous impact” on more than 6.000 families, “losing their buffaloes, their only livelihood”.
Mobilized in Hawizeh, the environmental activist Ahmed Saleh Neema criticizes the environmental consequences: “There are no more fish, smooth-haired otters, wild boars”.
A disaster for these marshes sheltering "many populations of endangered species", according to Unesco. The sector represents "one of the largest stopover and wintering sites" for ducks, and a major stopover for around 200 species of migratory birds.
Those of Hawizeh are irrigated by two effluents from the Tigris River, which has its source in Turkey, assures AFP Mr. Neema. Their flow has been reduced, he says, as authorities practice rationing to cover the country's water needs.
"The government wants to preserve as much water as possible", recognizes the activist, however criticizing "poor management of the file". Under pressure from protests, authorities partially reopened the floodgates, before closing them again, he said.
"Searching for Water"
On the Iranian side, these marshes called Hoor al-Azim also suffer from water stress: half of the Iranian sector is currently dry, the official Irna agency recently reported.
“The main river on the Iranian side which feeds the Hawizeh marshes has been completely cut off for more than a year,” explains Hatem Hamid, director of the government center for water resources management in Iraq.
On the Iraqi side, the water needs of agricultural activities or marshes are only half covered, he acknowledges, because one of the "priorities" is to provide drinking water.
By more than 50 degrees, “impossible to compensate for the very high evaporation in the marshes”, he adds.
Officials highlight rehabilitated canals and streams to feed the marshes: after leaving the dry areas, it is here that families settle.
Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes — considered by some to be the Garden of Eden of the Bible — have already suffered from the days of the old regime.
To eradicate the insurrection that was hiding there, the dictator Saddam Hussein had them dried up in the 1990s. Since then, their wet surface has been halved.
In Chibayich, Ali Jawad, 20, deplores the recent departure of dozens of families from his hamlet.
"They migrated to other regions, looking for areas where there is water", he explains: "Before, when we came to the marshes, we found greenery, water, inner peace. Now it's like a desert. »
The Editorial Board (with AFP)