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Salt, drought decimate buffaloes in Iraq’s southern swamps

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CHIBAYISH, Iraq – Abbas Hashem turned his worried gaze to the horizon – the day was almost over and still there was no sign of the last of his water buffaloes. He knows that if his animals don’t come back from roaming the swamps of this part of Iraq, they must be dead.

The dry earth cracks under his feet and thick layers of salt cover the shriveled reeds in the Chibayish wetlands amid the great shortages of fresh water from the Tigris River this year.

Hashem has already lost five buffalo from his herd of 20 since May, weakened by hunger and poisoned by the salt water seeping into the low-lying swamps. Other buffalo herders in the area say their animals have also died or are producing milk that is not suitable for sale.

“This place used to be full of life,” he said. “Now it’s a desert, a graveyard.”

The wetlands – a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization and a stark contrast to the deserts prevalent elsewhere in the Middle East – were reborn after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when he built dams to drain the area and to wipe out Shiite rebels. were dismantled.

But today, droughts, which experts believe are caused by climate change and salt intrusion, coupled with a lack of political agreement between Iraq and Turkey, threaten the swamps that line the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in surround southern Iraq.

This year, acute water shortages — the worst in 40 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization — have driven buffalo herders deeper into poverty and debt, forcing many to leave their homes and migrate to nearby towns to find work.

The rural communities dependent on agriculture and ranching have long been alienated from officials in Baghdad, constantly embroiled in political crises. And when the government introduced strict water rationing policies this year, people in the region only grew more desperate.

Oil-rich Iraq has failed to rebuild the country’s aging water supply and irrigation infrastructure, and hopes for a water-sharing deal for Tigris with upstream neighbor Turkey have dwindled, hampered by Iraq’s intransigence and often conflicting political loyalties.

In the swamps, where water buffalo breeding has been the way of life for generations, anger at the government is palpable.

Hamza Noor found a place where a trickle of fresh water flows. The 33-year-old sails five times a day in his small boat across the marshes, fills the jerry cans with water and brings it back for his animals.

Between Noor and his two brothers, the family has lost 20 buffaloes since May, he said. But unlike other shepherds who left for the city, he stays.

“I don’t know of any other job,” he said.

Ahmed Mutliq feels the same way. The 30-year-old grew up in the swamps and says he experienced dry spells years before.

“But nothing compares to this year,” he said. He urged authorities to release more water from upstream reservoirs, blaming provinces in the north and neighboring countries for “withdrawing water from us”.

Provincial officials, powerless in Iraq’s highly centralized government, have no answers.

“We are ashamed,” said Salah Farhad, the head of the Dhi Qar province’s agricultural directorate. “Farmers ask us for more water, but we can’t do anything.”

Iraq depends on the Tigris and Euphrates basins for drinking water, irrigation and sanitation for its entire population of 40 million. Competing claims to the basin, which stretches from Turkey and cuts across Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq, have complicated Baghdad’s ability to create a water plan.

Ankara and Baghdad have not been able to agree on a fixed flow rate for the Tigris. Turkey is bound by a 1987 agreement to release 500 cubic meters per second towards Syria, which then shares the water with Iraq.

But Ankara has defaulted on its commitment in recent years due to declining water levels and rejects future sharing agreements that force it to release a fixed number.

Iraq’s annual water plan prioritizes reserving enough drinking water for the country, then the agricultural sector, and draining enough fresh water to the marshes to minimize salinity there. This year the amounts have been halved.

Salinity in the swamps has further increased due to water-deprived Iran diverting water from the Karkheh River, which also drains into Iraq’s swamps.

Iraq has made even less progress in sharing water resources with Iran.

“With Turkey there is a dialogue, but many delays,” said Hatem Hamid, head of the main department of the Iraqi Ministry of Water responsible for drafting the water plan. “With Iran there is nothing.”

Two officials from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry’s legal department, which handles complaints against other countries, said efforts to engage with Iran over water sharing were blocked by senior officials, including then-Prime Minister Mustafa’s office. al-Kadhimi.

“They told us not to talk to Iran about it,” said one of the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss legal issues.

Iraq’s needs are so dire that several Western countries and aid agencies are trying to provide development aid to Iraq to improve its aging water infrastructure and modernize old agricultural practices.

The US Geological Survey has trained Iraqi officials in reading satellite imagery to “strengthen Iraq’s hand in negotiations with Turkey,” said a US diplomat, also anonymous because of the ongoing negotiations.

When the sun set over Chibayish, Hashem’s water buffalo never returned – the sixth animal he lost.

“I’m nothing without my buffaloes,” he said.

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