The so-called Garden of Eden in Iraq has suffered from a three-year drought and low rainfall, as well as reduced water flow from rivers and tributaries originating in neighboring Turkey and Iran, AFP reported.
Vast expanses of the once lush marshes of Khuvayza, bordering the border with Iran, have dried up and their vegetation has turned yellow. The same fate befell the popular tourist areas of the Chibaysh swamps.
The swamps are our source of livelihood – we used to fish here, and our livestock could graze and drink, said Ghassed, 35, from a village near Huwayza.
The Southern Iraq Marshes were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 for both their biodiversity and their ancient history.
But now dry stream beds meander around the once-green wetlands, and the local Um-en-Naaj lake has turned into pools of muddy water in the middle of the dry land.
Like his father before him, Ghassed raises buffaloes, but out of about 30 animals, only five remain in the family.
The Mesopotamian marshes, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, suffered under Saddam Hussein, who ordered them to be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting rebels.
In the past, wetlands experienced occasional years of severe drought before being revived by good rainy seasons.
Between August 2020 and the current month, 46 percent of swamps in southern Iraq, including Huwaiza and Chibayish, have completely lost surface water, according to the Dutch peacekeeping organization PAX. Another 41 percent of the marshes have been affected by declining water levels and humidity.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Iraq said the swamps are "one of the poorest regions in Iraq and one of the hardest hit by climate change, warning of unprecedented low water levels.
Environmental activist Ahmed Saleh Nima said there are no more fish in the swamps, to or even a subspecies of the smooth-coated otter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose biodiversity is under threat.
He noted the catastrophic consequences for more than 6,000 families who are losing their buffaloes, their unique living asset.