Vets in Iraq’s marshes take to water
But this boat has a difference; it is used by veterinarians as an animal ambulance to bring critical healthcare for livestock, and especially the water buffalo iconic to the marshlands, facing an ever-growing threat from the impacts both of rampant pollution and climate change.
The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and also known as the Mesopotamian Marshes, is one of the world’s largest inland deltas.
The wetlands barely survived the wrath of dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered the marshes to be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting insurgents and hunting them down. But after Saddam was toppled, they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.
Today, the people in the marshes eke out a living from breeding buffaloes, as well as fishing and tourism.
Buffalo milk is renowned throughout Iraq for the strength it is supposed to give to those who drink it, and farmers use it to make the creamy “guemar” cheese, a delicacy that delights Iraqis served on flatbread for breakfast.
There are an estimated 30,000 buffaloes in the wetlands, but herds vary in size. Some farmers have just a handful of animals, while others have as many as a hundred. But when the buffaloes fall sick, the farmers have previously struggled to get proper veterinary treatment. Before, they had to guess why the animal was ill, and go to get drugs themselves.
“The farmer cannot transport it to town, so they risk making an incorrect diagnosis,” said Mukhtar Mohammed Said, director of the Iraqi Green Climate Organization, which funds the buffalo boat project along with the French branch of the Vets Without Borders (VSF) aid group.
So with the farmers unable to bring their buffaloes to the vets, the vets go to visit by boat.
As well as the usual sickness the buffaloes face, the vets are helping the farmers confront the twin challenges of surging levels of sewage dumped into the waters and the devastating impact of climate change with droughts growing in intensity.
The UN classifies Iraq “as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world” to climate change, and the country whose ancient name is Mesopotamia (between rivers, in Greek) is hit by increasingly frequent and longer intense droughts.
The water level of the marshes keeps declining, a problem made worse by dam-building in neighboring countries.
With that, the salinity of the water is rising, making the buffaloes weak.
“The animals suffer because too salty water favors diseases,” said biologist Omar al-Sheikhli, technical director of Green Climate.
“If this continues, even the strongest buffaloes will die.”