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Environment

Iraq's wetland paradise under threat

Climate change, dams and poor water policy could finish off the Mesopotamian Marshes Saddam Hussein once sought to destroy. With them, rich ecosystems and the unique Marsh Arab culture would be lost.

Ali, 13, looks at the buffalo lying next to him in the straw. He affectionately calls it "the baby." The animal is only two days old and its birth was a relief for Ali's family. Here, in Iraq's Mesopotamian Marshes, buffaloes are often the only capital and wealth.

A year ago, Ali's family lost half its buffaloes to a severe drought. Most inhabitants of the marshes were similarly affected. 

The wetlands, which some describe as the cradle of civilization, are located in southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet and divide into dozens of channels before flowing into the Persian Gulf.

They are an oasis in the middle of the desert - a biodiverse Garden of Eden - and home to the "Marsh Arabs," whose unique culture is perfectedly adapted to their environment. Or at least, they used to be, before Saddam Hussein drained them in early 1990s to punish tribesmen there who backed a Shiite uprising against the Baath regime.

That paradise, which once encompassed over 20,000 square kilometers, became a hell: a desert filled with mines. The rich wildlife disappeared and locals were forced to leave.

Reviving Eden

In total, half a million people were displaced as a result of what the United Nations in 2001 called a "major ecological disaster, broadly comparable in extent and rapidity to the drying of the Aral Sea."

In 2003, when Saddam Hussein's regime fell following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Marsh Arabs returned home and destroyed the dikes that blocked the rivers.

"There was no plan to restore the marshes," recalls local engineer Jasim al-Asadi, who was among the first to hack into the embankments built by Saddam Hussein. "The locals took the initiative because this marsh is their life." Soon, water flowed back into the marshes.

This could have marked a rare happy ending for post-invasion Iraq. But today, the marshes are again at risk and some fear they could disappear for good.

Irak Sumpflandschaft nahe Chibayish Dürre (Emilienne Malfatto)

The marshes are only half their former size and pick-ups now drive where once there was water

Too salty for life

"There is a big problem with the water, both in terms of quantity and quality," explains al-Asadi, who is also the local managing director of Nature Iraq, a nongovernmental organization working on the marshes.

Climate change, poor usage and distribution of water in Iraq, and above all dams upriver, have dramatically reduced the volume of water flowing into the wetlands. The marshes are about half the size they used to be.

And the water is too salty. With reduced water flow, rising temperatures and evaporation, as well as saltwater intrusion from the Gulf, salinity levels have rocketed.

"Before Saddam drained the marshes, the salinity level wasn't more than 200 ppm [parts per million]," says al-Asadi, who remembers how the Marsh Arabs used to drink it.

Average salinity is currently around 2,500 ppm. But it sometimes reaches 7,000 ppm - and in 2015 it reached 20,000 ppm in some parts of the marshes.

"The buffaloes would drink the water and die. They would poison themselves," remembers Sayeed Ali Murad, 29, a buffalo breeder living deep in the marshes. "The reeds died, all the plants died." He lost more than 15 animals.

Water as a weapon

Iraq's political and security situation has only made things worse since the "Islamic State" (IS) organization took control of dams on the Euphrates in Ramadi and Fallujah.

In June 2015, IS closed the Ramadi dam gates, lowering the river's water levels. IS has lost control of Ramadi and Fallujah but still holds Syria's largest dam, the Tabqa dam on the Euphrates.

All this makes survival in the wetlands harder. But so far, Sayeed Ali stays. "We are so happy here in nature." Just now, the situation is better, he explains.

"The water is okay at the moment, but in a few months we will probably suffer from the lack of it." If the water decreases again, he admits he will probably have to leave.

Irak Sumpflandschaft nahe Chibayish Ali Murad Hassan (Emilienne Malfatto)

Sayeed Ali Murad says if things get any worse he will have to leave

Indeed, a new threat is emerging, this time from Turkey. The Ilisu Dam, a contentious hydroelectric dam on the Tigris River, could start operation by the end of 2017, and would further reduce the water flow.

"Turkey, Syria and Iraq have agreements for sharing water resources - but Turkey doesn't respect them," says al-Asadi.

Ankara's control of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has long been criticized in the Middle East, with some blaming Turkish water policy on shortages that have fed conflict and instability in Syria and Iraq.

Who cares about a marsh?

In today's chaotic Iraq - with its internal political crisis and rampant corruption - saving the natural wonder of the Mesopotamian Marshes just isn't high on the national agenda. 

The country allocates most of its water to wasteful intensive irrigation practices, prioritizing agriculture over conservation.

In July 2016, the Mesopotamian Marshes were added to Unesco's World Heritage list as a "refuge of biodiversity." Many Marsh Arabs doubt the impact of this gesture. But activist Toon Bijnens thinks it is "more than symbolic."

A member of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, Bijnens says the inclusion of the marshes in the list "sets priorities straight" and could push Iraqi authorities to take action to protect the marshes.

"Now that the marshes are world heritage, the Iraqi government will have to develop a comprehensive water distribution plan which takes into account not only agricultural production, but also sustainability of the marshes."