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Why Iraq’s biblical paradise is becoming a salty wasteland

In addition to recovering and rebuilding after a brutal war with ISIS, Iraq is facing a dire water shortage. Levels in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have plummeted, in part because neighboring Turkey built a dam upstream that restricts the flow into Iraq. The remaining water is too salty to sustain life. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports on the crisis and its agricultural impact.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The lush marshes of Southern Iraq were once a vital source of life and nourishment for Iraqis. But the wetlands are suffering from shockingly low water levels, part of a widespread water crisis impacting the entire country.

    Low water and high salt levels are killing plant life and the water buffalo that Iraqis depend on to survive.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson was recently in Southern Iraq. And, as she reports, water has become a rare commodity in the country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Few people look out on these marshes with as much love and concern as Jassim Al-Asadi. He has dedicated his life to preserving them.

  • Jassim Al-Asadi:

    I born here in the middle of the marshes. I born here in the central marsh. And when I opened my eyes — in that time I opened my eyes for a garden, and it was an Eden again, Eden, Eden.

    And there is a wide area for water, plant, buffalo, fish. In that time, the fish in everywhere, around our houses.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These ancient Iraqi wetlands are believed to have been the Garden of Eden in the Bible. They have sustained human life here for thousands of years, stretching on for miles and miles, a precious UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    But they shouldn't look like this. Yellowy brown reeds are a sign of the plant life dying. These are the same marshes filmed just four years ago.

  • Jassim Al-Asadi:

    It is not normal. Historical, in everywhere the marsh is, the water is suitable for the buffalo.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Yes.

  • Jassim Al-Asadi:

    But in seasons and years, drought years, like this year, like the year of 2015, 2009, there is a problem for the water. There is a problem for the quality of water and also for the quantity of water.

    As you see — you see this area?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Yes.

  • Jassim Al-Asadi:

    It is dead completely, before — four months ago, it is all of this area was covered in water, in that time because the level of the Euphrates is higher. Now the level of Euphrates goes down by 84 centimeters.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Wow.

  • Jassim Al-Asadi:

    Yes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The marshes of Southern Iraq are suffering from low water levels, down 17 inches, and it's a part of the widespread water crisis spanning the entire country.

    Water levels in the life-giving Tigris and Euphrates rivers have plummeted. The problem is that the water isn't just low. It's also too salty. According to Al-Asadi, the reduced volume of water has caused salination to spike from 200 parts per million, as it was when he was a child here, to 1,800 parts per million today.

    That means the water is not only killing the plant life, but also the water buffalo people here depend on. These cows provide cheese, milk, and meat to eat. For thousands of years, they simply drank the water all around them, but now it has become too salty and toxic for the buffalo, blinding them before they die.

    We met buffalo herder Abbas Jawad collecting water from one of the remaining few healthy parts of the marsh. From here, he will carry the water miles to his herd. He has lost 15 buffalo in the last year to the salty water.

  • Abbas Jawad:

    All of this used to be green, and now it is almost a desert. Last year, we had water, but, this year, there is none at all. You can see that with your own eyes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Entire villages have been abandoned, as life for the herders becomes too hard to bear. The land simply cannot sustain them.

  • Zahara:

    Our livelihood is water. We just need the water. If our herds die, we will starve.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Zahara is just 15 and has never been to school, but she understands the politics behind her community's struggles.

  • Zahara:

    They stopped the flow of the water from Turkey. They want oil in exchange for water. The Iraqi government refused to give them the oil, and we are the ones who suffer.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She is referring to the Ilisu Dam, a massive newly constructed dam upstream along the Tigris River, across the border in Turkey, part of a massive 22-dam project.

    Ilisu Dam went into operation this summer, and water levels downstream in Iraq immediately plummeted. Around 70 percent of Iraq's water flows from neighboring countries like Iran and Turkey.

    Iraq's minister for water resources, Hassan Al-Janabi, says the dams upstream in those neighboring nations only add to the effects of climate change.

  • Hassan Al-Janabi:

    It's tough to quantify, but I would say that the climate change impact is felt, is visible. But the control by the upstream countries, the dams in Turkey, Iran and Syria, is more visible.

    So, and on the — on the Euphrates River, for example, we lost something like 55 to 60 percent of our — of the average annual flow to our country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dams don't just lower the water levels,; they prevent the natural ancient patterns of water in Iraq. The ebb and flow of dry seasons and floods year after year, snowmelt in spring, scarcity at other times, is how agriculture began here, and sustained humans for thousands of years, making the land that runs between the Tigris and Euphrates part of the legendary Fertile Crescent.

  • Hassan Al-Janabi:

    So we know that, during springtime, we have the peak influx to our country. In summertime, we have less water. But this, over history, we know that, just like predictable behavior of the river system.

    Now, when you build major dams on the upstream, so you lose this peak, this excess of water gets stalled, so we don't have this peak during springtime. So, you lose everything that is dependent on this cycle of flow, biodiversity, floods, you know, this renewal of fertility of the soil.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Already, farmers are being driven from the land in Iraq. In the northern province of Nineveh, wheat farmers struggle to keep their crops alive in parched, dry earth.

    Farmer Sami Yessi says his wheat fields are failing.

  • Sami Yessi:

    Last year, I planted 175 acres, but, this year, I could not. I planted only 125. It costs me around 40 million Iraqi dinars. The rain fell late and the crops failed.

    If this situation continues, we cannot plant. If this situation remains the same next year, we will not be able to.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Even if farmers are able to nurture crops, the Iraqi government has cut wheat production by 50 percent and banned planting rice, because both crops use so much water for cultivation.

    In the short term, that may preserve water, but, in the long term, it could drive millions of Iraqis dependent on agriculture from the land, turning swathes of this once fertile Mesopotamian basin into an uninhabitable dust bowl.

  • Hassan Al-Janabi:

    The desert is expanding. And with this expansion of desert, this means poverty, displacement, irreversible change in the land.

    You cannot get people back. Even the conditions in the country — assuming the conditions in the country are right for them to support them and get them back, it won't happen. It's not that easy.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Meanwhile, Iraq has turned from a country that once exported food to one increasingly dependent on imports. As water becomes a rare commodity here, the price of food will increase.

    In the place known as the cradle of civilization, life here will become more precarious.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

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