According to FAO’s El-Hajj Hassan, more than 2,000 families had to evacuate their homes from early last summer to late October as the swamplands retreated. Some of the displaced have moved to swampy areas where water still exists, while others have abandoned their traditional way of life and moved to cities like Basra or Baghdad.
Tensions are rising among those staying in the swamps, and security advisers believe water shortages, and particularly the disappearance of the swamps, could affect national security. According to Eimear Hennessy, a former risk analyst at G4S Consulting, “Thousands of people, uprooted and impoverished by the ongoing crisis in the Mesopotamian swamps, are likely to become more vulnerable to recruitment by non-state actors” — militias and terrorist groups — “which are an attractive promise of the future”.
According to Nature Iraq, recent drying of the swamps has led to a collapse in wildlife diversity, with populations of binni, a brownish-gold fish prized by Marsh Arabians, plummeting. “Two thousand officially registered fishermen have lost their source of income and are now unemployed,” said Saleh Hadi, Dhi Qar’s Agriculture Directorate, in October.
Before the drought, the marbled duck, listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, appeared to be thriving in the swamps, as were the critically endangered Basra warbler and the native Iraqi babbler. But with falling water levels, Nature Iraq said, these birds are being seen much less frequently.
The cattle suffer too. Water buffalo that graze in the rivers now have a hard time finding clean water and sufficient food; Thousands have died from disease and malnutrition. “The lower water levels are having a devastating impact on buffalo farmers,” said Samah Hadid, a spokeswoman for the NRC. “The buffalo breeders we speak to are becoming increasingly desperate.”
As a view worsening for communities in Iraq’s wetlands, NGOs are promoting measures that could reduce the impact of the drought, including investing in water filtration and treatment systems for areas with high salinity. They are urging Iraqi authorities at the national and regional levels to collect more data on water flows and the effects of scarcity, and to improve regulation of aquifers to prevent overpumping, which reduces the amount and quality of groundwater.
The Iraqi government provides some grain farmers with salt-tolerant wheat; Breeders are working on drought-tolerant sugar beets; and academics are advocating programs that provide conflict management training to communities struggling for an equitable sharing of water resources.
Iraq has been negotiating with its upstream neighbors to allow more water to flow across its border for years, but the situation has not improved. In January 2022, Iraq announced it would take Iran to the International Court of Justice for cutting off its water access, but the case has not progressed. Last July, Iraq asked Turkey to increase the amount of water flowing south into Iraq. Both sides agreed that an Iraqi “technical delegation” would visit Turkey to assess water levels behind Turkish dams, but Turkey took no responsibility for Iraq’s water shortages. Instead, Turkey’s Ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Güney, accused Iraqis of “squandering” their water resources and called on the nation to reduce water wastage and modernize its irrigation systems.
According to the United Nations World Food Program and the FAO, below-average rainfall is expected in the region in the new year. With the worsening effects of climate change and no improvement in water management in sight, the outlook for Iraq’s Mesopotamian swamps and the communities that depend on them looks bleak.