iraqi swamp vets go wet

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Chibayish (Iraq) (AFP) – The small motorboat that plows through the swamps of southern Iraq is similar to those tourists use to explore the vast swamps, the reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden.

But this boat has a difference; it is used by veterinarians as an animal ambulance to deliver essential health care to livestock, and in particular the iconic swamp water buffalo, facing an ever-increasing threat from the impacts of both rampant pollution and climate change climatic.

“This veterinary ambulance is the first and only initiative of its kind in the marshes of Iraq,” said veterinarian Karrar Ibrahim Hindi, as he left to treat a sick buffalo.

The marshes, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and also known as the Mesopotamian marshes, constitute one of the largest inland deltas in the world.

The wetlands barely survived the wrath of dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered the swamps to be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting and hunting down insurgents.

But after Saddam’s overthrow, Iraq pledged to preserve the ecosystem and provide functional services to the marsh communities, and they were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2016, both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.

Today, the inhabitants of the swamps live from buffalo farming, fishing and tourism.

Buffalo milk is renowned throughout Iraq for the strength it is believed 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.

After her consultation, Hindi climbed back into the narrow boat, perfect for navigating the maze of thin canals.

He walked to another farmhouse, whose farmhouse was built in the traditional way of cut and braided reeds.

The boat is used by veterinarians as an animal ambulance to provide essential health care to livestock, and in particular to the iconic water buffalo of the Iraqi swamps. Asaad NIAZIAFP

Climate change, salt water

There are around 30,000 buffaloes in the wetlands, but the herds vary in size. Some farmers have only a handful of animals, while others have as many as a hundred.

But when buffaloes get sick, ranchers have already struggled to get proper veterinary treatment. Before, they had to guess why the animal was sick, and fetch medicine themselves.

“The farmer can’t transport it to town, so he might get the wrong diagnosis,” said Mukhtar Mohammed Said, director of Iraq’s Green Climate Organization, which is funding the buffalo boat project with the branch. French organization of Vétérinaires sans frontières (VSF). support group.

Thus, the breeders being unable to bring their buffaloes to the veterinarians, the veterinarians go to visit by boat.

At the buffalo breeder Sabah Thamer, the veterinary team arrives to help his animals.

“Some herders don’t have the money and they only have one or two buffaloes,” Thamer said, explaining that veterinary services are free, but not the medicine the animals might need.

“They don’t know how to get them treated,” Thamer added. “So the buffaloes get sick, they get worse for two or three days and they die.”

Hindi, the vet, dressed in an immaculate white coat and a stethoscope wrapped around his neck, holds a buffalo by the neck with a gloved hand, checks its pulse and takes its temperature.

“The service reduces the distances between the farmers who live in the middle of the marshes and the veterinarians who have their practices in the city,” explains Hindi.

Veterinarian Karrar Ibrahim Hindi examines a sick buffalo at a marsh farm in Iraq's southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province
Veterinarian Karrar Ibrahim Hindi examines a sick buffalo at a marsh farm in Iraq’s southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province Asaad NIAZIAFP

As well as the usual disease faced by buffaloes, vets are helping farmers deal with the twin challenges of rising levels of sewage dumped into the waters and the devastating impact of climate change with droughts more and more intense.

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.

The UN ranks Iraq ‘the fifth most vulnerable country in the world’ to climate change, and the country whose ancient name is Mesopotamia (between the rivers, in Greek) is hit by increasing droughts frequent and more intense.

The water level of the marshes continues to drop, a problem made worse by the construction of dams in neighboring countries.

With this, the salinity of the water increases, weakening the buffaloes.

“Animals suffer because water that is too salty promotes disease,” explains biologist Omar al-Sheikhli, technical director of Green Climate.

“If this continues, even the strongest buffaloes will die.”

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