MARAIS DE CHEBAYESH, Iraq, October 14 (Hfrance.fr) - On an island surrounded by the narrow streams of the Chebayesh marshes in southern Iraq, Sabah Thamer al-Baher rises with the sun milking his herd of water buffaloes.
This summer has been difficult for Baher, father of two . According to the United Nations, the 2020-2021 rainy season in Iraq was the second driest in 40 years, causing the salinity of wetlands to increase to dangerous levels.
The animals got sick and died, and Baher was forced to buy drinking water for his own herd of around 20 buffaloes, his only source of income.
Another drought is forecast for 2023 as climate change, pollutionand the construction of dams upstream keep Iraq trapped in a cycle of recurring water crises.
"The swamps are our If the droughts persist, we will cease to exist, because our whole life depends on water and the breeding of water buffalo, "said Baher, 37.
Baher and his family are Marsh Arabs, the indigenous wetland population that was displaced in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein dammed and drained the marshes to flush out the rebels hidden in the reeds .
After h was overthrown in 2003, the marshes were partly inundated and many Marsh Arabs returned, including Baher's family.
However, conditions have pushed the wetlands 'fragile ecosystem out of balance, endangering biodiversity and livelihoods, said Jassim al-Asadi, aenvironmentalist born in the marshes.
"The less water, the saltier it is ", said Christophe Chauveau, a French veterinarian who surveyed the marshes for Agronomists and Veterinarians Without Borders, adding that buffaloes drink less and produce less milk when water quality drops.
According to the Pl Max anck Institute, the temperature rise in the Middle East during the summer has been over 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade, about twice the global average.
Iraq 's neighbors are also suffering from droughts and rising temperatures, which has led to regional conflicts over water. The Ministry of Water declared Earlier this year that water flows from Iran and Turkey were reduced bye 50% throughout the summer.
Then , there is the issue of pollution from upstream. In 2019, the government said 5 million cubic meters of raw sewage per day was pumped directly into the Tigris, one of the rivers that feed Iraqi swamps.
Environmentalist Azzam Alwash said there was an urgent need for Iraq to engage in a long-term water management strategy, as its growing population fast of nearly 40 million is expected to double by 2050.
Aoun Dhiab, spokesman for the Water Ministry, said the The government's strategy was to preserve the permanent, deep swamp water bodies over a minimum of 2,800 square kilometers (1,080 square miles).
"This is what we are planning, preserving the bodies of water formanents to protect ecological resources and fish stocks, "he said.
Dhiab said that the water levels in the swamps had partially improved since the summer, with less evaporation due to lower temperatures and the wetlands naturally shrinking and expanding depending on the season.
He also said that the government could not allocate more water to the swamps when there were shortages of drinking water in the summer.
"Sure people in the swamp want more wat er, but we have to prioritize. The priority goes to drinking water, municipalities and the preservation of the Shatt al-Arab river, "he said.
Drought and pollution of the Chatt al -The Arab river caused a crisis in southern Iraq in 2018, when thousands of were hospitalized for water-borne illnesses.
The consequences are nevertheless punitive for the Arabs of the swamps. With his youngest daughter snuggled in his arms and drinking buffalo milk from his feeder, Baher watches his nephews take care of a sick buffalo.
In the summer, some of Baher's family completely moved their herds to the deeper parts of the swamps, where salinity levels were lower, but competing for the best places as families were forced to share spaces. increasingly reduced.
Estimates on the marshes 'current population vary considerably . Once 400,000 in the 1950s, about 250,000 people sodid not return when the swamps were re-flooded.
As dwindling water supplies have pushed farmers this year to move to cities , where a lack of jobs and services have led to protests in the past, Baher, like many other young shepherds, is hoping he can stay here.
"I felt like an outsider in the city," he said, remembering when the swamps were drained. "When the water returned to the marshes, we regained our freedom. Reporting by Charlotte Bruneau and Thaier Al-Sudani Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky
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