Climate change is turning the cradle of civilization into a grave

HADDAM, Iraq – No one lives here anymore. The mudbrick buildings are empty, just shells of human life that has become impossible on this earth. The wind whips the dry reeds. For miles there is no water to be seen.

Carved out of an ancient land once known as Mesopotamia, Iraq is home to the cradle of civilization – the expanse between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the first complex human communities emerged.

But as climate change produces extreme warming and water scarcity around the Middle East, the land here is drying up. Throughout southern Iraq, there is a sense of end.

Dozens of agricultural villages are abandoned, but for a single family here and there. Saltwater intrusion is poisoning land passed down from father to son for generations. The United Nations recently estimated that more than 100 square miles of agricultural land is lost to the desert each year.

Years of below-average rainfall have made Iraqi farmers more dependent than ever on the dwindling waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. But upstream, Turkey and Iran have blocked their own waterways over the past two years, further weakening the flow from the south, so a salty current from the Persian Gulf is now pushing north and into Iraqi rivers. . The salt has reached the northern edge of Basra, some 85 miles inland.

In the historic swamps, meanwhile, men cling to what’s left of life as they knew it as their buffaloes die and their wives and children scatter to nearby towns, unable to bear any longer. the summer heat.

Temperatures in Iraq hit a record 125 degrees this summer with aid groups warning that drought is limiting access to food, water and electricity for 12 million people here and around the world. neighboring Syria. With Iraq warming faster than most parts of the globe, it’s a glimpse of the world’s future.

Stay or go?

Across the swamps often hailed as the original Garden of Eden and on the scorching lands beyond, the inhabitants are now faced with a choice. “Are we staying or are we leaving?” sighed Raad al-Ghali, a bison herder in the historic Chibayish Swamp as he recently took shelter in the shade next to his tent.

“Everyone is suffering these days. We don’t know what to do.

In Chibayish’s maze of winding waterways, water levels have dropped. Salt and pollution kill the reeds. To keep their animals alive, locals fill rickety boats with drinking water bought miles away.

Nearby fields turned brown. The orchards and the roses have disappeared, and the palm trees are slowly dying. In the border town of Siba, the irrigation water is so salty that it poisons the harvest.

“We used to grow cucumbers in greenhouses,” recalls one farmer, Abu Ahmed, 52, standing in his parched farm. “Now we don’t even have the equivalent of a freshwater cucumber. How can we continue here?

The impact of rising temperatures started slowly, people recall. Year after year, the summers got hotter. Days on the water were tougher and cases of heat stroke were increasing, residents said. The buffaloes fell ill. Fish were found dead on the shore.

In previous summers, Ghali’s animals were kept by his wife and sons, but this year they left for the town of al-Majer, 70 miles to the north. “They were fed up here. It was too hot for them. Sometimes we feel like the last generation to do it. It feels like the end of an era. »

Ghali’s hair had turned white at the temples, framing wrinkles created by the sun. The forty-year-old looked exhausted.

Could he sell the animals and move too? He shook his head. “No one would buy them now.”

He looked across the mudflats where his black buffaloes were sweating.

“We never thought things would get to this point,” he said.

Increase in migration

Iraq’s average temperature has risen 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, according to Berkeley Earth, twice the rate of the Earth as a whole. Climatologists warn that the extreme temperatures facing places like southern Iraq are just a small taste of what is to come elsewhere.

Iraq’s climatic woes have exacerbated shortages in everything from food to power generation. The fisheries have been exhausted. In the north of the country, wheat production is expected to fall by 70%, according to aid groups. In provinces without access to rivers, families devote an ever-increasing share of their monthly income to drinking water.

The result, increasingly, is migration. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 20,000 Iraqis were displaced due to lack of access to drinking water in 2019, most of them in the south of the country.

But as they flee to towns and cities, they further strain services already drained by widespread corruption and weak labor markets where unemployment is high.

Researchers say the migration has sparked tensions with longtime residents, who blame the new arrivals for water and electricity shortages. Summer blackouts are already frequent.

And politicians use migration to distract from their own failures. “There is now a narrative that people migrating to cities and living in unofficial neighborhoods are overloading local water and electricity,” said Maha Yassin, a researcher at the Planetary Security Initiative of the United Nations. Clingendael Institute.

There is not any work

In Majer, a run-down town where the summer heat forces residents to stay indoors for much of the day, Ghali’s brothers described the new life they had found there. Lights flickered and a weak fan whirred.

“I’m just sitting here. There is no work,” said Tahseen Mohamed, 25, dressed in a dark galabeya with her black hair neatly combed up.

The house was crowded with relatives, all dependent on an uncle who earned a salary in the service of a militia in the north of the country. Another brother, they said, was trying to sell the family’s buffalo milk, but with little luck. “The salt made their milk fatter,” he said.

Everyone agreed that life was more tolerable in the city. The children were happier; the houses had fans. But anxiety still abounded. Ghali, they said, had been taken to hospital days earlier with heat stroke. An infant niece had died in the burning car when they tried to take her to the doctor. “The heat makes life so difficult. We know it is only getting worse,” said 24-year-old Hussein Mohsen.

Mohamed said his wife left him once they moved to Majer, because he couldn’t afford to buy a house. “Listen, I want to make it happen, but where does the money come from?” asked the young man.

In the corner of the room, an old woman nodded sympathetically. “We are not ourselves here,” she said.

“I can’t afford to leave”

Some villagers cannot even afford to flee from the tendrils of climate change. In pockets of rural southern Iraq that have been largely emptied of people, some families worry they have been left behind.

As night fell recently in the remote border town of Faw, Jamila Mohamed, 55, and her brother Hussein worried about their animals.

The family squatted in a government building, as they could not afford rent, and relied on their livestock for food. But the increasing heat and salt water have made the land they live on almost useless. Several cows died. Others are very thin.

“We have to sell them because we can’t feed them,” Hussein said, patting a black-and-white calf on the head. “But what happens next? We cannot afford to leave this place.

Standing in the twilight as cows grazed dirty hay, the air was still and silent.

Crossing her arms, Jamila exhaled sadly.

“Almost everyone left us,” she said. “We only have God now.”