In southern Iraq, a vulture pours water from waste pipes into swamps, famous for living in the biblical garden of Eden, threatening the already weak heritage of humanity.
In a country where the state does not have the capacity to provide basic services, 70% of Iraq’s industrial waste is dumped directly into rivers or the sea, according to data collected by the United Nations and academia.
Jassim al-Asadi, head of the non-governmental organization Nature Iraq, told the AFP news agency that the black wastewater discharged into the UNESCO-listed marshes contains “pollution and heavy metals that directly threaten the flora and fauna.”
As an engineer in Iraq’s water resources ministry, al-Assad left that job to save an extraordinary natural habitat, suffered destruction at the hands of former dictator Saddam Hussein, and is even more endangered by climate change.
Contaminants “indirectly affect humans through buffalo,” he said, is known as marshmallow supplements and “guemar” cheese made with milk.
According to Nader Mohssen, a fisherman and farmer born in the Chibayish district of the marsh, “buffaloes are forced to travel several kilometers into the marshes to drink something else that is not contaminated with water.”
And “around the sewer pipes, most of the fish die,” he added, gesturing to the dozens of rotten fish floating on the surface of the marsh water.
Pollution is only the latest threat to one of the world’s largest inland delta systems.
The rich ecosystem located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers barely survived Hussein’s wrath, as he ordered the clearing of the swamp in 1991 as a punishment for communities supporting rebel fighters.
Drainage reduced the wetland by half of the 1991 area of 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles).
A former regime official was sentenced to death in 2010 for what the UN called “one of the worst environmental crimes in history,” even though he died in prison last year of natural causes.
A few years ago, Mohssen and the inhabitants of other swamps (rural, tribal in the three southern provinces, and several thousand families fighting to the south) thought they would see the house flourish again.
After the destruction of canals and land dikes built by the Hussein regime, the water returned, along with more than 200 bird species and dozens of wildlife species, some of which were on the verge of extinction elsewhere.
Tourists – mostly Iraqis – also began to travel to the region again for boat trips and lunch with grilled fish.
But nowadays, the absolute smell coming out of the sewage pipes drives people away.