Climate change, extreme heat and drought end way of life in Iraq's famed marshes Drought and extreme heat that scientists link to climate change are altering the UNESCO-protected marshlands. Iraq's average annual temperatures are increasing at nearly double the rate of Earth's.

In Iraq's famed marshlands, climate change is upending a way of life

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In Iraq's southern marshlands, part of ancient Mesopotamia, climate change threatens a way of life as old as civilization. Extreme heat and low rainfall are turning it into such a hostile place that many whose families have lived there for generations say they can't remain. NPR's Ruth Sherlock went to meet with this community.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: A young boy, maybe around 12, maneuvers a narrow wooden boat a little like a canoe using a long wooden pole and skills passed down to him through generations. He's herding his family's water buffalo into waterways between the reeds.

They've built their way of life around these giant beasts in these marshlands. And at first glance, it seems idyllic. Fish swim in the dark waters as herons fly overhead. Black and white kingfishers dart between the thickets of reeds. Reeds also make the canopies of tents where marsh families sleep and live on small islands alongside their animals.

They rise at first light to milk the water buffalo and then speed by boat to the nearest town of Chibayish to sell the fresh milk. Their buffalo, meanwhile, wallow in the marshes, their muzzles just above the waterline. But a short boat ride from here, there exists a very different sight. We dock in an area where this fertile scene stops dead.

To one side of me, there are marshlands. And then to the other side, there's just what's starting to look like a desert - its dry, skeletal plants and some very hot, dusty ground.

We reach a community that lives on the edge of this dry and cracked expanse of land that continues as far as you can see. We gather in the shade of a tent. Men and boys crowd in to listen as 25-year-old Majid Hameed tells us how they've watched the marshland around them dry and have struggled in unprecedented heat. NPR's Awadh Al Taie interprets.

MAJID HAMEED: (Non-English language spoken).

AWADH AL TAIE, BYLINE: Even the water, it's became hot. It's just like fire something. It's boiling water.

SHERLOCK: The spring had started with promise, but now he says he feels like it's the hottest summer he's ever known. This year, the temperatures in southern Iraq exceeded 125 degrees Fahrenheit. With evaporation and drought, the marsh water became too salty for the water buffalo to drink.

HAMEED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: That forced Hameed and other herdsmen into long boat trips to a river to haul in fresh water for the animals to drink.

HAMEED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: But the animals still fall sick. They get worms from the concentrations of fecal bacteria in the reduced waters. Some of them die.

HAMEED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Hameed points to a water buffalo that lies on the dry ground with her stomach bloated and haunches sunken.

HAMEED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Her calf nuzzles her gently, but she's too weak to respond. There's another sick buffalo wallowing in the mud near the water. Hameed says animals in their herd are dying in numbers that he and his family have never seen in their lifetime as herdsmen.

HAMEED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says life here has just become too difficult. So after a year of debating, Hameed says he's made the difficult decision to leave.

HAMEED: (Non-English language spoken).

AL TAIE: I sold three of our buffaloes, and I decided to buy a car.

SHERLOCK: He's moving to join his wife and children who've already left for town. With the money he made selling the water buffalo, he plans to buy a pickup truck and work delivering agricultural feed and other goods.

When we leave the marshlands, I call Ivana Hajzmanova, who's in Geneva with the International Displacement Monitoring Center, which tracks migration and its causes. She says there are many local reasons for the water shortages in Iraq, like cracked pipes and poor water management. But, she says, climate change is exacerbating all this.

IVANA HAJZMANOVA: But what we also see is that there is a link, of course, between climate change and severe repetitive droughts.

SHERLOCK: For example, a lack of rainfall in the region means that Turkey and Iran have drawn more water from the Tigris and Euphrates River basins, and that has lessened their flows as they reach Iraq. Temperatures in Iraq are increasing at twice the global rate, says the Berkeley Earth site that tracks them. This heat further evaporates water resources and renders places like the marshlands ever more inhospitable. All this, Hajzmanova says, is forcing a rapid rise in migration and displacement. She cites a 2018 study on Iraq by the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration.

HAJZMANOVA: More than 20,000 people, they are forced to flee as a result of drought and water scarcity in the southern governorates.

SHERLOCK: She says that pattern is continuing. Many climate migrants move into cities, and that places further pressure on urban areas that already suffer from poor municipal services and infrastructure.

In the poor southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, we meet 53-year-old Hameed Hassab Ali. Four years ago, Ali gave up fishing and raising water buffalo in the marshlands and moved his family of nine children here, more than 60 miles away, in search of work.

HAMEED HASSAB ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

AL TAIE: The water levels became very low. So when the animals drink it, they'll die immediately. So that's why I sold my buffaloes. And also, there is no fish in this water. So I make my decision.

SHERLOCK: Now he lives in a sparsely furnished home in a slum neighborhood.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says, for now, it's all he can afford. Ali is still paying back the loan he took out to buy the taxi he uses to make a living. It's tough, but at least in the city he has a home with electricity and a fan with which he can protect his family from the brutal temperatures outside. Sometimes, though, he yearns for the life he left behind.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says he misses drinking coffee in his tribal community and the abundance of nature and fish. He wants to return to that life, but he knows that even if he goes back to the marshlands now, these good times are there no more.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Nasiriyah.

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