CHIBAYISH, Iraq (AP) — Abbas Hashim stared anxiously at the horizon — the day had almost passed and there was still no sign of his last buffalo. He knows that when his animals wander through the swamps of this part of Iraq and don’t come back, they must be dead.
The dry ground is cracked underfoot, and reeds are shriveled by thick layers of salt in the Chibayish marshes amid this year’s dire shortage of fresh water from the Tigris.
Hashem has lost five of his 20-head herd since May, weakened by starvation and poisoned by salt water seeping into low-lying marshes. Other buffalo herders in the area say their animals are also dying or producing unmarketable milk.
“This place used to be full of life,” he said. “Now it’s a desert, a cemetery.”
A watery remnant of the cradle of civilization and a stark contrast to the desert elsewhere in the Middle East, the wetlands were reborn after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, when he built dams to drain the area and root out Shiite rebels. was dismantled.
But today, drought, which experts believe is caused by climate change and invading salt, and the lack of a political agreement between Iraq and Turkey threaten the wetlands that surround the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq.
A severe water shortage this year – the worst in 40 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization – has plunged buffalo herders deeper into poverty and debt, forcing many to leave their homes and move to nearby towns in search of work.
Rural communities engaged in agriculture and cattle breeding have long been estranged from officials in Baghdad and constantly engaged in political crises. When the government introduced a strict water rationing policy this year, people in the region became even more desperate.
Oil-rich Iraq has not restored the country’s aging water supply and irrigation infrastructure, and hopes for a water-sharing deal with its upstream neighbor Turkey have dwindled, hampered by intransigence and often conflicting political loyalties in Iraq.
Anger against the government is palpable in the swamps, where buffalo farming has been a way of life for generations.
Hamza Noor found a patch of fresh water. Five times a day, the 33-year-old travels through the marshes in his small boat, filling canisters with water and bringing them back for his animals.
Between Nur and his two brothers, the family has lost 20 buffaloes since May, he said. But he remains different from other shepherds who go to the city.
“I don’t know any other job,” he said.
Ahmad Mutlig feels the same way. The 30-year-old grew up in the swamps and says he saw dry spells years ago.
“But nothing compares to this year,” he said. He urged authorities to release more water from upstream reservoirs, accusing northern states and neighboring countries of “taking water from us”.
Disempowered provincial officials in Iraq’s highly centralized government have no answers.
“We are ashamed,” said Salah Farhad, head of the agricultural department of Dhi Gar province. “Farmers want more water from us 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 Turkey and cuts through Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq, have complicated Baghdad’s ability to develop a water plan.
Ankara and Baghdad have not been able to agree on a fixed flow rate for the Tigris. Turkey is bound by a 1987 agreement to release 500 cubic meters of water per second to Syria and then share the water with Iraq.
But Ankara has failed to meet its commitment in recent years due to declining water levels, and rejects future sharing agreements that would force it to release a fixed number.
Iraq’s annual water plan prioritizes first allocating enough drinking water for the country, then supplying enough fresh water to the wetlands to supply the agricultural sector and minimize salinity there. This year, the amounts have been halved.
Salinity in the marshes has been exacerbated by water-stressed Iran diverting water from the Karkheh River, which also feeds Iraq’s marshes.
Iraq has made even less progress in sharing water resources with Iran.
“There is a dialogue with Turkey, but there are many delays,” said Hatem Hamid, head of the Iraqi Water Ministry’s main department responsible for developing the water plan. “Nothing with Iran”
Two officials in the Iraqi foreign ministry’s legal department, which deals with complaints against other countries, said attempts to reach out to Iran about the water sharing were blocked by higher authorities, including the office of then-Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazimi.
“They told us not to talk to Iran about this,” one of the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss legal matters.
Iraq’s needs are so dire that a number of Western countries and aid organizations are seeking development aid to upgrade Iraq’s aging water infrastructure and modernize its ancient farming practices.
The US Geological Survey has trained Iraqi officials to read satellite images to “strengthen Iraq’s hand in negotiations with Turkey.”
As the sun set over Chibayish, Hashem’s buffalo never returned—the sixth animal he had lost.
“I have nothing without my buffaloes,” he said.