HUWAIZAH MARSHES, Iraq: To feed and cool his buffaloes, Hashem Gassed must traverse 10 kilometers (6 miles) of sun-scorched land in southern Iraq, where drought is devastating swaths of the mythical Mesopotamian marshes.
The reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, the swamps of Iraq have been battered by three years of drought and low rainfall, as well as reduced water flows along rivers and tributaries from the neighboring Turkey and Iran.
Vast swaths of the once-lush swamps of Huwaizah, straddling the border with Iran, have been kiln-dried, their vegetation turning yellow. Sections of the Chibayish marshes, popular with tourists, suffer the same fate.
“The swamps are our livelihood – we used to fish here and our cattle could graze and drink,” said Gassed, 35, from a hamlet near Huwaizah.
The marshes of southern Iraq were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, both for their biodiversity and ancient history.
But now dry creek beds meander around the once verdant wetlands, and the area’s Lake Um Al-Naaj has been reduced to puddles of muddy water on largely dry ground.
Like his father before him, Gassed raises buffaloes, but only five of the family’s approximately 30 animals remain.
The others died or were sold as the family struggles to make ends meet.
Family members watch carefully for those left behind, fearing the weak and malnourished beasts will fall into the mud and die.
“We’ve been protesting for over two years and no one is listening,” Gassed said.
“We don’t know where to go. Our lives are over.
Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes suffered under former dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered them drained in 1991 to punish communities protecting insurgents and to hunt them down.
The wetlands have sporadically gone through years of severe drought in the past, before being revived by good rainy seasons.
But between August 2020 and this month, 46% of swamps in southern Iraq, including Huwaizah and Chibayish, suffered a total loss of surface water, according to the Dutch peacebuilding organization PAX.
According to the organization, which used satellite data to carry out the assessment, 41% of marsh areas suffered from a drop in water levels and humidity.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Iraq said the marshes were “one of the poorest regions in Iraq and one of the most affected by climate change”, warning against “unprecedented low water levels”.
He noted the “disastrous impact” on more than 6,000 families who “lose their buffaloes, their unique vital asset.”
Biodiversity is also threatened.
The swamps are home to “many populations of endangered species” and are an important stopping point for around 200 species of migratory waterbirds, according to UNESCO.
Environmental activist Ahmed Saleh Neema said there were “no more fish”, wild boar or even a subspecies of smooth-haired otter in the marshes.