NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – Mustafa Ahmed strokes a buffalo in southern Iraq’s Najaf province before tying a feed bag around its neck.
Iraq forms part of the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, and has been cultivated for thousands of years. But the landscape has been ravaged by damming in the upper reaches of Iraq’s two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, declining rainfall trends, and decades of conflict.
Ahmed’s father, Ahmed Abdul Hussein, said it was heartbreaking for his son that severe water shortages in his hometown of Al-Mishqab district forced him to sell his animals one by one.
They recently lost a 2 month old calf. A 13-year-old boy said, “It hurts that one of them died…I really love you.” “Now there are nine people left.”
Last year there were 20.
Reuters spoke to six pastoralist families in Najaf state, all of whom said they had to sell their animals or had their livestock die in the past few months.
In the nearby Umm Qashm district, buffalo numbers have fallen from 15,000 to 9,000 in five years, local mayor Meshtak Sebal said.
Iraqi water ministry spokesman Khalid Shemal said Najaf province has received only about 40 percent of its traditional water share this year.
Already fragile wetlands in southern Iraq are now experiencing the most severe heat wave in 40 years, making the situation even worse. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 70% of wetlands are without water.
Shemal said the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are down about 70% this year compared to decades.
Officials and experts have cited upstream dams in Turkey and Iran, climate change, outdated domestic irrigation technology and lack of long-term management plans as the root causes of the water crisis that is pushing thousands of people out of the countryside.
In al-Mishqab, the landscape has become barren, and Abdul Hussein’s animals have to endure dust blowing up from abandoned farmlands with scarce water to keep cool.
“This water is stagnant,” said Abdul Hussain, pointing to his animals in the stagnant water. “They are thirsty.”
Poor water quality affects animal health and weakens immunity.
Nadir Al-Ansari, a professor at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, said Najaf’s water quality was among the worst in Iraq. Untreated wastewater and chemical fertilizers dumped into rivers upstream are making the water unfit for consumption as it moves south, he said.
He added that as the water level drops, the salinity of the water increases above recommended human intake.
farming in ruins
In addition to water shortages, farmers are struggling to feed their buffalo due to a drastic reduction in crop yields and soaring feed prices.
Only about half of the land cultivated across Iraq in 2020 is currently being tended, according to the FAO. In Najaf, the situation is even more extreme, with only 5 percent of the planted area in 2020 being utilized, as water shortages have almost completely halted rice planting.
Pastoralists like Abdul Hussein used to cultivate their own land or source cheap fodder from rice farmers.
“If the buffaloes don’t eat…they won’t produce milk,” said Abdul Hussein, adding that he has lost his main source of income and his income has plummeted, and he is struggling to buy much more expensive feed now that it is imported.
“In a few months, it may all be over,” he said as the sun set over al-Mishqab. His only option, he said, is to move to the Najaf suburb where the rest of his family is so he can access drinking water.
Last year drought displaced 62,000 people across Iraq, according to the International Organization for Migration (IMO). Many people migrated from the countryside to cities with high unemployment and poor services.
Ali Raza Qureshi, the local representative of the United Nations World Food Programme, said Iraq needed an adaptation strategy. So far, Baghdad has used oil revenues to stave off a famine crisis, but “these safety nets do not cover the loss of livelihoods,” he added.
Abdul Hussein sitting in his sparsely furnished living room
He said he kicked his sons out of school years ago to help the herd. He added that he “regrets it more than anything else.”
According to UNICEF, about 7% of children aged 5 to 17 in Iraq are engaged in child labor.
Ahmed said he wanted to go back to school after seeing his animals disappear one after another. Because he is illiterate, his father worries that his future prospects are bleak.
“The fate of our lifestyle is unknown. We don’t know what lies ahead,” Abdul Hussein said.
(Reporting by Ahmed Said and Charlotte Bruno; Writing by Charlotte Bruno; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)