Iraq's Marsh Arabs battle drought and pollution

The Marsh Arabs of Iraq are an indigenous population

living in the narrow waterways of the Chebayesh Marshes in the country’s South.

They say their entire way of life depends on water.

But these waters are threatened by climate change, pollution and dams.

Raad Hamid Hashem rises at dawn to milk his herd of water buffalo - his only source of income.

This summer has been tough.

Iraq's 2020-2021 rainfall season was the second driest in 40 years, according to the United Nations,

causing the salinity - the amount of salt - of the wetlands to rise to dangerous levels.

Hashem lost animals to sickness,

and despite being surrounded by water, was forced to buy fresh drinking water for his own herd.

"We even dug wells, to provide water for the buffaloes. // We did all this, really struggled, to not have to abandon our herd. We can't live without them. We are used to them."

The local people also battle pollution coming from upstream.

In 2019, the government said raw sewage water was being pumped directly into the Tigris, one of the rivers that feed Iraq's marshes.

The Marsh Arabs were displaced in the 1990s

when Saddam Hussein dammed and drained the marshes to flush out rebels hiding in the reeds.

After his overthrow in 2003, the marshes were partly reflooded and many Marsh Arabs returned, including Hashem's family.

However, conditions have pushed the wetlands' fragile ecosystem off balance, endangering biodiversity and livelihoods.

Environmentalists, like Jassim Al-Asadi, say Iraq needs to commit to a long-term water management strategy:

"All the species, whether birds or aquatic species rely on this water. If the water is polluted, because of the sewage, or because of high levels of salinity, it impacts the health and productivity of (water) buffaloes and biodiversity."

Another drought is predicted for 2023 as climate change, pollution and upstream damming keep Iraq trapped in a cycle of recurring water crises.

The consequences of which will be felt hardest by local communicates:

"If the marshes disappear, buffalo herders and fishermen will disappear, and economic activity (in the nearby town) will decrease, for shop owners, dairy product sellers, transport, services… Because the different components of the local society depend on each other. So if one component of local society suffers, this will be reflected in the rest of society that depends on it economically."

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