In southern Iraq, putrid water gushes out of drains in swamps known to house the Biblical Garden of Eden, threatening an already fragile World Heritage site.
In a country where the state lacks the capacity to guarantee basic services, 70% of Iraqi industrial waste is dumped directly into rivers or the sea, according to data compiled by the United Nations and academics.
Jassim al-Asadi, head of the non-governmental organization Nature Iraq, told AFP news agency that black sewage dumped in UNESCO-listed swamps carries “pollution and heavy metals that directly threaten the flora and fauna ”present on site.
Formerly an engineer in the Iraqi water resources ministry, al-Asadi left that post to devote himself to safeguarding the extraordinary natural habitat, which had previously been destroyed by former dictator Saddam Hussein and is further threatened by change. climate.
The pollutants also “indirectly impact humans via the buffalo,” swamp montages and known for the “guemar” cheese produced from their milk, he said.
According to Nader Mohssen, a fisherman and farmer born in the district of Chibayish, in the swamp, “buffaloes are forced to travel several kilometers in the swamps to be able to drink anything other than polluted water”.
And “around the sewer lines, most of the fish are dying,” he added, gesturing to dozens of rotten fish floating on the surface of the swamp water.
Pollution is just the latest threat to one of the world’s largest inland delta systems.
The rich ecosystem, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, barely survived the wrath of Hussein, who ordered the swamp to drain in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting rebel fighters.
Drainage reduced the marsh to half of its 1991 area, or 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”, although he died of natural causes in prison last year .
A few years ago, Mohssen and other swamp dwellers – several thousand families straddling three rural, tribal southern provinces and struggling to make ends meet – believed their home to thrive again.
Once the canals and earthen dikes built by the Hussein regime were destroyed, the water returned, and with it over 200 species of birds and dozens of types of wildlife, some at the edge of extinction elsewhere.
Tourists – mostly Iraqis – have started flocking to the area again for boat trips and lunch on grilled fish.
But today, the overwhelming stench emanating from sewage pipes drives people away.