Fishermen, fishpond owners and local residents in Babylon Province, south of Baghdad, are in shock as hundreds of thousands of carp fish suddenly died in the Middle Euphrates. This distressing news comes after major water pollution already had taken its toll on Iraq once this year, as around 100,000 people were hospitalized this past summer in the southern city of Basra.
According to its spokesman Saif Badr, the Ministry of Health warned against the consumption of fish now because of a disease. Even though no illnesses have been registered so far, the risk of human infection seems high.
Badr also reported that health monitors had taken multiple samples of water from the river, the networks of lagoons and from the fish. The results did not yet show a case of toxicity; however, for further confirmation samples have been sent to the Central Public Health Laboratory in Baghdad and to the World Health Organization laboratories in Kurdistan.”
Badr then advised that the health control teams are closely monitoring fish vendors in the local markets, and that anyone who is found selling the dead fish will be held accountable according to law.
Adel Fakhir published a piece in Arabic about the issue for the Iraqi AenaNews, where he spoke with Dr. Ramadan Hamza Mohammad who is a senior Water Strategy and Policy Expert in Iraq. Dr. Ramadan Mohammad suggested that the reasons for the death of fish in the Euphrates River are attributed first to the Biological Oxygen Demand BOD because of the lack of water discharges from Turkey and Syria.
Then there is the issue of the increased waste dumping in the river, resulting in suffocation of the fish as a result of the process (eutrophication), and a third reason to the poisoning would be an increase in the proportion of dissolved total salts.”
Dr. Mohammad asserted that refining the strategic storage of dams including the Mosul dam and lakes such as Lake Tharathar, are one of the main reasons for the death of fish because of the lack of water to strengthen the Euphrates River.
Depleted River Flows
According to a statement issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture, the main causes of the death of large quantities of fish is the low levels of water in the Tigris and Euphrates and the lack of water flowing from Turkey, in addition to of industrial and domestic pollutants thrown into the two rivers. Non-compliance with environmental controls and regulations by many transgressors using floating fish cages also has contributed to the sudden surge of fish deaths.
The ministerial committee recommended removing all transgressors from unregulated floating fish cages and removing the dead fish in rivers in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Environment and affected governorates, as well as obliging farmers to comply with environmental controls and regulations.
The Ministry’s statement also claimed that the density of fish breeding in the unit area (25 fish per cubic meter) has led to a decrease in oxygen. A stimulation of fungal and bacterial infections was also recorded as a result of the fermentation of fodder and fish waste in the stagnant river bed along with the emission of ammonia due to decomposition of dead fish.
In the meantime, the fishy phenomenon seems to be spreading. More dead carp have floated to the surface of fish ponds on the Euphrates around 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Babylon Province.
The region’s agricultural chief Safaa al-Junaibi blamed the mass deaths on overcrowding in fish farms, which he told AFP facilitated the rapid spread of bacterial disease.
“In a single fish farm, the sickness killed 56,000 fish — around 120 tons. The losses racked up to 300 million Iraqi dinars ($2.5 million, 2.2 million euros),” al-Junaibi said.
This comes after the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture declared on 20 October that it had succeeded to achieve 100% self-sufficiency in local fish, using the latest breeding techniques.
5,000-year-old Marsh Culture Destroyed
The Euphrates is drying up. Strangled by the water policies of Iraq’s neighbors Turkey and Syria, a two-year drought and years of misuse by Iraqi farmers, the river is significantly smaller than it was just a few years ago. Some officials worry that it could soon be half of what it is now. Iraqis have been setting off the alarm for decades now, asserting that canals have dwindled to shallow streams and fishing boats now sit on dry land. Pumps meant to feed water treatment plants dangle pointlessly over brown puddles.
It is a crisis that threatens the roots of Iraq’s identity not only as the land between two rivers, but as a nation that was once the largest exporter of dates in the world. With the Euphrates showing few signs of improving health, bitterness over Iraq’s water threatens to be a source of tension between Iraq and its neighbors for months or even years to come. However, many Iraqi official say the real problem lies in Iraq’s own deplorable water-management policies.
Admitting the problem alone is not enough. Nothing will improve if Iraq does not seriously address its own water policies and its history of flawed water management. Leaky canals and wasteful irrigation practices squander the water, and poor drainage leaves fields so salty from evaporated water. The illegal methods are wiping out wildlife, polluting water, endangering human health and undermining the recovery of one of the world`s great wetlands.
Illegal methods are only on the rise and need immediate government solutions like the boom in the use of electroshocking - nets attached to car batteries - to catch fish according to Iraq Nature, an Iraqi environmental group. Many of the fish not caught are left sterilized or dead, the rotting bodies spawning organic matter which uses up oxygen that in turn allows bacteria to flourish, upsetting the ecological balance.
The damage is then made worse by farmers using chemicals intended to treat lice in sheep as pesticides for their crops and by hunters using poison to catch birds. Birds are being poisoned and sold in markets. Veterinary chemicals intended for sheep are being used to dust crops and poison fish. These methods are now sadly destroying the 5,000-year-old Marsh Arab culture in Iraq, based on artificial islands and houses made from tall reeds, which was once considered a cradle of civilization.
This article has been lightly edited—HLRN
Photo: Iraqi men float past thousands of dead fish from nearby fish farms on the Euphrates River near the town of Sadat al-Hindiya, north of the central Iraqi city of Hilla, 2 November 2018. Source: AFP.