FAO Regional Office for Near East and North Africa

Water crisis is Threatening Ancient Mesopotamia and its communities

FAO Iraq calls for urgent action : Marshes can’t wait

Baghda, 4 August 2022 – FAO Representative in Iraq, Dr. Salah El Hajj Hassan is calling for immediate actions and warning for the very serious water crisis especially in Alhwar.

The ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilization where farmers for thousands of years lived off the fish and water buffalo of these fertile marshes is now threatened by water scarcity and deteriorating water quality.

Upstream water diversions by neighbouring countries, climate and environmental changes, urbanization, as well as saltwater intrusion, are contributing to the severe water reduction in the Marshes, one of the poorest regions in Iraq, altering the flora and fauna and slowly leading to ending a way of living as old as civilization itself.

The traditional green / blue swamps which are rich in fish, niches for migratory birds, source of reeds-papyrus for buffalo feeding and drinking and refreshing water for animal, are unfortunately increasingly becoming desperate with a vast expanse of dry land with desiccated bushes and reeds, sometimes furrowed by thin streams not accessible to rickety wooden boats.

The risk of loss of traditional livelihoods of Southern Marshes residents, due to the disastrous impact of water shortages and climate change,  is leading to an exodus of population.The results of the water quality assessment undertaken by the Center for Restoration of the Iraqi Marshes and Wetlands, Ministry of Water Resources (CRIMW), in Chibaish, Dhi Qar Governorate, presented in the below table, show that water flows from Euphrates and water levels with Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) [1]in different locations in the Marshes in July 2022 are alarming compared to those recorded one year earlier.



Water Levels (cm)

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) (ppm)


July 2021

 July 2022

 July 2021

 July 2022

Euphrates Basin





Central Marshes





Hur Al-Hamar






The table shows clearly the low water levels and the high concentration of salinity in the Euphrates River, the main water provider for the Marshes. The reduced river flows have caused saltwater currents from Shatt Al-Arab to intrude further upstream, accentuated by high evaporation caused by extreme heat.  

Buffalo breeders in the region  warned that this once peaceful and pleasant environment become a major environmental disaster area, causing great frustration,  loss of hope to overcome this crisis and urging buffalo breeders to: 

  • Migrate to close by areas and governorates such Kut, Samawah, Najaf, Karbala and Shatrah where water is available for them and their animals;
  • Sell their animals at low prices to be able to buy feeds for the saved animals;
  • Shift to other livelihoods opportunity. 

Dr. Chedly Kayouli, FAO International Livestock Expert confirmed that local rural communities, mainly buffalo producers are in distress as low water levels in the marshes, not previously observed, is upending their livelihoods and existence.

FAO Iraq in coordination with the ministry of agriculture has responded by providing immediate assistance to the local community and buffalo breeders in the Marshes. This would not have been possible without the generous contribution from the European Union.

However, more and immediate actions on all levels are urgently needed to anticipate and mitigate for further crisis impact: high-level crisis team need to be established to develop and implement plans of actions. 

In this regard, FAO Iraq appeals for support to implement medium and long-term strategy with activities that show good prospects of giving relief to the Iraq's southern marshlands and its vulnerable buffalo farmers so that they can continue to live in these areas.

RNE-ADG :Dr. Abdulhakim Elwaer, FAO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa (NENA) confirmed  FAO’s commitments to make all possible efforts to mobilize resources to support the vulnerable farmers impacted by climate change in Iraqi Marshes and to collaborate further with partners to reduce the impact of the crisis.


[1] TDS refers to the total concentration of dissolved substances in drinking water.