Mon. May 29th, 2023

Salt and drought killing buffaloes in Iraq's southern marshes
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Abbas Hashem fixes his worried gaze on the horizon — the day is almost gone and still there is no sign of the last of his water buffaloes.
He knows when his animals don't come back after roaming the marshes in this part of Iraq they must be dead.
The dry earth is cracked beneath his feet and thick layers of salt coat shrivelled reeds in the Chibayish wetlands amid this year's dire shortages in fresh water flows from the Tigris River.
Hashem has already lost five buffaloes from his herd of 20 since May, weakened with hunger and poisoned by the salty water seeping into the low-lying marshes.
Other buffalo herders in the area say their animals have died too, or are producing milk that's unfit to sell.
"This place used to be full of life," he said.
"Now it's a desert, a graveyard."
The wetlands were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, when dams he built to drain the area and root out Shiite rebels were dismantled.
But today, drought that experts believe is spurred by climate change and invading salt, coupled with a lack of political agreement between Iraq and Türkiye, is endangering the marshes which surround the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq.
This year, acute water shortages — the worst in 40 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation — have driven buffalo herders deeper into poverty and debt, forcing many to leave their homes and migrate to nearby cities to look for work.
The rural communities that rely on farming and herding have long been alienated from officials in Baghdad, perpetually engaged in political crises.
And when the government this year introduced harsh water-rationing policies, the people in the region only became more desperate.
Oil-rich Iraq has not rebuilt the country's antiquated water-supply and irrigation infrastructure. Hopes for a water-sharing agreement for Tigris with upstream neighbour Türkiye have dwindled, hampered by intransigence and often conflicting political allegiances in Iraq.
In the marshes, where the rearing of water buffaloes has been the way of life for generations, the anger towards the government is palpable.
Hamza Noor has found a patch where a trickle of fresh water flows. The 33-year-old sets out five times a day in his small boat across the marshes, filling up canisters with water and bringing it back for his animals.
Between Noor and his two brothers, the family have lost 20 buffaloes since May, he says. But unlike other herders who have left for the city, he is staying.
"I don't know any other job," he said.
Ahmed Mutliq, feels the same way. The 30-year-old grew up in the marshes and says he's seen dry periods years before.
"But nothing compares to this year," he said.
He urged the authorities to release more water from upstream reservoirs, blaming provinces to the north and neighbouring countries for "taking water from us".
Provincial officials, disempowered in Iraq's highly centralised government, have no answers.
"We feel embarrassed," Salah Farhad, the head of Dhi Qar province's agriculture directorate, said.
"Farmers ask us for more water, and we can't do anything."
Iraq relies on the Tigris-Euphrates river basin for drinking water, irrigation and sanitation for its entire population of 40 million.
Competing claims over the basin, which stretches from Türkiye and cuts across Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq, have complicated Baghdad's ability to make a water plan.
Ankara and Baghdad have not been able to agree on a flow rate for the Tigris. Türkiye is bound by a 1987 agreement to release 500 cubic metres per second toward Syria, which then divides the water with Iraq.
But Ankara has failed to meet its obligation in recent years due to declining water levels, and rejects any future sharing agreements that force it to release a fixed amount.
Iraq's annual water plan prioritises setting aside enough drinking water for the nation first, then supplying the agriculture sector and discharging enough fresh water to the marshes to minimise salinity. This year, the amounts were cut by half.
Salinity in the marshes has risen further, with water-stressed Iran diverting water from its Karkheh River, which also feeds into Iraq's marshes.
Iraq has made even less headway on sharing water resources with Iran.
"With Türkiye, there is dialogue but many delays," said Hatem Hamid, who heads the Iraqi Water Ministry's department responsible for formulating the water plan.
"With Iran, there is nothing."
Two officials at the legal department in Iraq's Foreign Ministry, which deals with complaints against other countries, said attempts to engage with Iran over water sharing were halted by more senior people, including the office of then-prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
"They told us not to speak to Iran about it," one of the officials said. 
Iraq's needs are so dire that several Western countries and aid organisations are trying to help it upgrade its ageing water infrastructure and modernise ancient farming practices.
The US Geological Survey has trained Iraqi officials in reading satellite imagery to "strengthen Iraq's hand in negotiations with Türkiye", one US diplomat said.
As the sun set over Chibayish, Hashem's water buffalo never returned — the sixth animal he lost.
"I have nothing without my buffaloes," he said.
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