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Climate change, pollution threaten Iraq’s ancient marshes

24 November 2023

A Marsh Arab man looks at a dry ground that was covered with water near Chibayish in southern Iraq © REUTERS

Jassim Al-Asadi was born in a boat in the marshes of southern Iraq. Sixty-six years later, his life still revolves around the marshes, now as an environmental activist and a water-resources engineer fighting to save them from extinction.

“This used to be green pastures and reeds, but the place has dried up,” said Al-Asadi as he walked in blistering heat in a landscape of barren, cracked earth. “Over there is a house where a buffalo rancher used to live, but he abandoned it and moved near the Euphrates River. There are no more buffalo pastures.”

The Marsh Arabs, the wetlands' indigenous population of Iraq, have fished and cultivated crops here for 5,000 years, raising water buffaloes and building houses from reedbeds on floating reed islands at the place where the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers meet before flowing into the Gulf.

But climate change, water pollution, oil exploration and the construction of upstream dams are threatening the survival of this delicate ecosystem and its ancient Mesopotamian culture, which some trace back to the Sumerians.

Al-Asadi, head of the leading conservation group Nature Iraq, said a drought now in its fourth year is turning vast areas of once flourishing wetlands and agricultural land into desert. Salinity is rising in the shrinking channels and waterways, killing fish and making buffaloes sick.

“There is a change operating in the environment,” said Al-Asadi, who worked for more than 30 years as an engineer in Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources. “One of the reasons is climate change and the effect of climate change on water levels in the Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq.”

Environmentalist Jassim Al-Asadi stands on former wetlands © OHCHR/Anthony Headley

Environmentalist Jassim Al-Asadi stands on former wetlands © OHCHR/Anthony Headley

As a child in the marshes, Al-Asadi watched fishermen row canoes between reeds as buffaloes bathed amid lush vegetation, but that image is now rare.

According to a report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture released in July, the current drought is the worst in 40 years. The area’s rich wildlife, including many migratory birds, is under threat, and buffalo breeders and farmers are being forced to migrate in precarious conditions to urban areas like Basra, Najaf or Baghdad.

Haider Mohammed’s life depends on his herd. Despite living by a waterway near Chibayish in the central marshes, he must bring fresh water from other places to feed his buffaloes, which produce milk, meat and dung for fuel.

“The water here is salty and polluted,” said Mohammed, who is in his 20s. “We once had 70 buffaloes, but only 20 survived. The rest died or were sold off.” Beyond the line of green reeds that surround his house, the change becomes dramatic: no longer marshland, but scarred and salty dry land.

Local tribesmen meet at a mudhif, a traditional reed house © OHCHR/Anthony Headley

Local tribesmen meet at a mudhif, a traditional reed house © OHCHR/Anthony Headley

“Our life depends on water”

Sheikh Lebnan Abdul Al-Khayoun warned that a millennia-old lifestyle based on breeding, fishing and harvesting could disappear unless something is done.

“Our life here depends primarily on water. If these marshes dry up, we will have a big living problem,” he said as he fingered a string of beads and sipped tea inside a mudhif, a traditional reed structure that serves as a meeting centre for the Marsh Arabs, or Ma'adan as they are known in Arabic.

“We are not traders or employees and we do not have other professions to provide us with incomes. The marshes are the profession of our fathers and forefathers,” he said, estimating that the livelihoods of three to four million people depended on the ecosystem of the marshes.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its biodiversity and cultural value, the marshes have had a troubled modern history. Saddam Hussein drained the area by building ditches to evict rebels in the 1990s, reducing water levels by 90 percent. Tens of thousands migrated to the U.S. and Europe, but after the regime fell, the ditches were removed and water and the Ma'adan returned.

Pollution and oil

The U.N. Environment Programme has identified Iraq as one of the countries most vulnerable to the impact of climate change due to a combination of high temperatures, lack of rain, drought and water scarcity, and frequent sand and dust storms.

Besides recurrent droughts, pollution is contributing to the collapse of the area’s environment, as millions of cubic metres of industrial waste are dumped into the rivers and waterways that feed the marshes, environmentalists say.

Activists say pollution caused by fossil fuel projects in Basra province, which boasts most of Iraq’s vast oil and gas reserves, has reached alarming levels and are a significant source of cancerous diseases, kidney failure and other ailments.

“Basra is witnessing severe pollution in terms of water, soil, air and also food contamination,” said Fadwa Tu’ma, of the local NGO Ozon, adding that extreme heat and desertification were contributing to a climate disaster in the area.

“Basra used to have 30 million palm trees and now there are less than 1 million. Previously, there was a green cover in the desert, but now there isn’t any shield against wind and dust.”

During a visit to southern Iraq last August, Human Rights Chief Volker Türk said the country was living a climate emergency and the world must confront this era of boiling climate. In 50-degree heat, Türk visited an area that was once lush with date palms but is now a dry, barren field.

What is happening here is a window into a future that is now coming for other parts of the world if we continue to fail in our responsibility to take preventive and mitigating action against climate change.


In an open letter ahead of COP28 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, Türk urged negotiators to steer away from short-sighted decisions and put human rights at the centre of climate action.

A boat navigates through a waterway lined with reeds in Iraq’s marshes © OHCHR/Anthony Headley

A boat navigates through a waterway lined with reeds in Iraq’s marshes © OHCHR/Anthony Headley

Regional cooperation

Al-Asadi, who has been involved in many water management projects to balance the environment and agriculture and restore the marshlands, said the problem of water scarcity goes beyond Iraq and called for a regional solution.

He blamed neighbouring Turkey and Iran for building upstream dams with little regard to international treaties. As climate change worsens the water crisis, countries of the Tigris-Euphrates basin must cooperate to fulfil the human rights to water and development and put aside rivalries, Al-Asadi said.

In Iraq, the Office is supporting efforts by civil society groups and human rights defenders for safe access to water for all people and for the sustainable and equitable use of water.

Al-Asadi said fighting for human rights and the marshes is worth it despite the dangers. Environmental activists in Iraq regularly face threats, harassment and arbitrary detention. Earlier this year, Al-Asadi was abducted and beaten up by an unidentified armed group before being released two weeks later.

“The marshes are not only an environment and an economy, but also a unique culture.”