Iraq's wetland wildlife threatened by low water levels

CHIBAYISH MARSHES, Iraq, July 11 (Reuters) - Dozens of water buffalo in Iraq's southeastern wetlands have died because of low water levels in the marshes, threatening the livelihoods of a community of marsh dwellers that has made the area its home for millennia.

Water levels in the marshes have fallen a third from their peak at 1.30 meters. Just as important, water salinity has nearly doubled, said Raad Habib, head of the Chibayish Organization for Environmental Tourism.

The development is just the latest blow to a part of the country that has suffered decades of misfortune and neglect.

Saddam Hussein accused the Marsh Arabs of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran and later drained the marshes to flush out rebels. Many residents fled, but after his overthrow in 2003, some of the marshland was reclaimed.

More than 30 water buffalo have died in the past month and many more are threatened with disease as the water level falls, according to Iraqi environmentalists and health officials who have launched a vaccination campaign.

"This can cause a great harm," he said. "The state has to find a solution through water-sharing agreements with neighboring countries to ... prevent excessive use of the Euphrates water," Habib said.

Iraq's marsh Arabs live amid a flat landscape of water and grasses near the border with Iran. The area is thought to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden and UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 2016.

The inhabitants use wooden pirogues with outboard motors to navigate waterways that stretch from horizon to horizon and their way of life and distance from Iraq's cities have kept them on the fringes of society.

The lack of water is in part caused by the low priority given to agriculture by the central government and decades of mismanagement of water resources. Corruption and climate change also play a role.

For many the impact has been devastating.

"Water became scarce and boats stopped coming to the area and after that our animals started to lose weight and then die. We gave them medicine, but in vain," said Ahmed Sabah, a resident who has a herd of 500 animals.

"They return home to lay on straw and die. We often slaughter them and we have to burn animals we find dead in the water .... We have lost a large number of our animals," Sabah said.

The marshlands, which are fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries and home to bird species and wildfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa.

(Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg Editing by William Maclean)