To feed and cool his buffaloes, Hashem Gassed must traverse 10 kilometers (6 miles) of sun-scorched land in southern Iraq, where drought ravages devastating parts of the mythical Mesopotamian swamps.
The swamplands of Iraq, the rumored home of the biblical Garden of Eden, have been hit by three years of drought and low rainfall, as well as reduced water flows along rivers and tributaries originating in neighboring Turkey and Iran.
Vast expanses of the once lush Huwaizah swamps on the Iranian border have baked dry, their vegetation yellowed. The same fate is suffered by parts of the Chibayish Marshes, which are popular with tourists.
“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 wetlands of southern Iraq were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016 for both their biodiversity and ancient history.
But now beds of dry streams meander around the once verdant wetlands, and the area’s Umm al-Naaz Lake has become puddles of muddy water on largely dry ground.
Like his father before him, Gassed raises buffalo, but only five remain of the family’s approximately 30 animals.
The others died or were sold as the family struggled to make ends meet.
Family members carefully watch over those who remain, afraid that the weak, malnourished beasts will fall into the mud and die.
“We have been protesting for more than two years and nobody is listening,” Gassed said. “We don’t know where to go. Our lives are over.”
Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian swamps suffered under former dictator Saddam Hussein, who in 1991 ordered them drained and hunted down as punishment for communities protecting insurgents.
The wetlands have historically endured sporadic years of harsh drought before being revived by good rainy seasons.
But between August 2020 and this month, 46% of southern Iraq’s wetlands, including Huwaizah and Chibayish, suffered a total loss of surface water, according to Dutch peacebuilding organization PAX.
Another 41% of the wetlands suffered from reduced water levels and wetness, according to the organization, which used satellite data for the assessment.
The United Nations 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” and warned of “unprecedented low water levels”.
It noted the “catastrophic impact” on more than 6,000 families who are “losing their buffalo, their unique living asset.”
Biodiversity is also endangered.
The wetlands are home to “numerous populations of threatened 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-headed otter in the swamps.
He said the Huwaizah marshes were watered by two tributaries of the Tigris, which originates from Turkey, but that their flows have declined.
Iraqi authorities are rationing supplies to cover different needs, he said.
“The government wants to conserve as much water as possible,” he added, lamenting “unfair water distribution” and “poor (resource) management.”
Under pressure from demonstrators, the authorities partially opened the valves, but closed them again.
On the Iranian side, the Huwaizah swamps, called Hoor al-Azim, are also suffering.
“The wetland is suffering from water shortages and currently about half of its Iranian part has dried up,” Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA recently reported.
Hatem Hamid, who heads the Iraqi government’s water management center, said that “on the Iranian side, the main river that feeds the Huwaizah swamps has been completely cut off for more than a year.”
He admitted that only half of the water needs of Iraq’s farms and swamps are being met as authorities monitor reserves closely and try to meet a range of uses, with drinking water being a “priority”.
Iraqi officials point to canals and small streams that have been rehabilitated to drain into the swamps – and where some families from parched areas have relocated.
But it is “impossible to compensate for the very high evaporation in the swamps” at temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), he added.
In Chibayish, the impact of the drought is all too clear for Ali Jawad, who said dozens of families have abandoned his hamlet.
“They migrated to other regions and looked for areas where there is water,” said the 20-year-old.
“Before, when we came to the swamps, there was green, water, inner peace,” he added. “Now it’s like a desert.”