Water hyacinth pest chokes Iraq’s vital waterways

1 / 3
A boat removes Eichhornia crassipes, commonly known as water hyacinth, from the surface of the Euphrates river, in Iraq's Shatrah district of the southern Dhi Qar province, on June 4, 2020. (AFP)
2 / 3
This picture taken on June 4, 2020 in Iraq's Shatrah district of the southern Dhi Qar province, shows Eichhornia crassipes, commonly known as water hyacinth in the Euphrates river. (AFP)
3 / 3
This picture taken on June 4, 2020 in Iraq's Shatrah district of the southern Dhi Qar province, shows Eichhornia crassipes, commonly known as water hyacinth in the Euphrates river.(AFP)
Short Url
Updated 22 June 2020

Water hyacinth pest chokes Iraq’s vital waterways

  • The water hyacinth was introduced to Iraq just two decades ago as a decorative plant
  • Now the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers are being choked by its rapid spread

AL-BADAA: The broad leaves and delicate purple flowers floating on the Euphrates look breathtaking — but they are suffocating the waterways of Iraq, celebrated as the “land of the two rivers.”
The water hyacinth, nicknamed the “Nile flower” in Iraq, is an invasive plant native to South America’s Amazon basin that has ravaged ecosystems across the world, from Sri Lanka to Nigeria.
The fast-spreading pest poses a special risk in Iraq, one of the world’s hottest countries that is already suffering from regular droughts and shrinking water resources due to overuse, pollution and upstream river dams.
The exotic flower was introduced to Iraq just two decades ago as a decorative plant, but now the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers are being choked by its rapid spread.
Its glossy leaves form a thick cover, absorbing up to five liters (1.3 gallons) of water per plant a day and blocking sunlight and oxygen vital to the aquatic life below.
That has made the hyacinth a formidable floral foe for Iraq’s fishermen, who sell hauls of river carp in local markets to those cooking “masgouf,” a national delicacy.
Because of the infestation, carp are dying and fishing nets get caught in the tangle of flat leaves, roots and flowers that also hampers boat travel.
“Our livelihoods are gone, all because of this Nile flower,” said Jallab Al-Sharifi, a fisherman in the southern province of Dhi Qar who makes his living on the Euphrates.
Another fisherman east of Baghdad who works the Tigris said his haul had dropped by as much as half.
The hyacinths have also impacted Iraqi farmers who already struggle with low water levels due to a series of dams built further upstream in Turkey and Iran.
The thick floating vegetation draws down water levels and clogs irrigation channels leading to agricultural fields.
“During this harvest, our vegetable sales in the local market were down by a third,” said Ahmed Yasser, a farmer in a village near Kut, east of Baghdad.
The hyacinth causes another type of pressure — a 100 square meter (1,000 square feet) patch can weigh up to five tons, putting major strain on dilapidated riverside infrastructure, Iraqi officials warn.
In the village of Al-Badaa, the thick columns of a brick bridge that once spanned a wide stretch of the Euphrates are now covered by hyacinths.
A dam further upstream encloses a swamp-like patch of land also covered by the plant.
If the flowers are not removed, “the bridge and dam of Al-Badaa will collapse,” said Jalil Al-Abboudi, the village sheikh.
“And if they collapse, the whole water supply system will collapse.”
That would deprive vast regions — all the way to Iraq’s southernmost province of Basra — of the fragile water resources their ecosystems and economies rely on.
Iraq’s oil-dependent economy is already projected to shrink by nearly 10 percent this year, according to the World Bank.
And a health crisis sparked by a shortage of safe drinking water in the south hospitalized some 100,000 people in 2018.
Locals blame authorities for what they say have been years of neglect and insufficient maintenance.
“The lack of action by the ministry of water resources, and the fact that there have been no renovations of infrastructure, caused an invasion that reached potable water reserves,” said Abboudi.
But Saleh Hadi, head of research at Dhi Qar’s agriculture directorate, insisted the ministry was well aware of the dangers and working hard to mitigate them.
“The ministry of water resources is working to combat this plant mechanically by uprooting it from irrigation channels,” he told AFP.
The perennial predicament has been made even worse this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Under normal conditions, Iraqi villagers along the banks of the Euphrates pluck out the plants by hand instead of using a chemical agent that would destroy the delicate ecosystem.
But this year, a countrywide lockdown imposed to stem COVID-19 infections has allowed the hyacinth to spread mostly unhampered.
Some vigilantes, however, are defying the curfew to fight the parasitic flower which they see as a bigger threat to their livelihoods than the pandemic.
While villagers are sneaking out to uproot the plants by hand, Mohammed Kuwaysh, an environmental activist and member of a farming cooperative, is thinking even bigger.
His collective raised about $800 from local farmers to equip small speedboats to clear waterways by cutting hyacinths en masse.
“The government isn’t listening, which allowed this flower to spread like wildfire,” Kuwaysh said.


Syrian, Russian airstrikes in Idlib amount to war crimes, as do extremist attacks — UN

Updated 28 min 52 sec ago

Syrian, Russian airstrikes in Idlib amount to war crimes, as do extremist attacks — UN

  • UN blames Syrian, Russian planes for bombing schools, hospitals and markets in Idlib

GENEVA: Syrian and Russian planes have carried out deadly aerial strikes amounting to war crimes on schools, hospitals and markets in Idlib province, UN investigators said on Tuesday in a report that also condemned attacks by extremist fighters.
They said that “indiscriminate bombardment” by pro-government forces, ahead of a March cease-fire brokered with Turkey, claimed hundreds of lives and forced nearly one million civilians to flee, which may amount to a crime against humanity.
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria also accused Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a extremist group that controls part of northwest Syria, of firing artillery into civilian areas “with no apparent legitimate military objective.”
Fighters from HTS, a group formerly known as Nusra Front, have tortured and executed detainees, it added.
“What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN panel, said in a statement.
The report, covering Nov. 2019 until June 2020, was based on overflight data and witness testimony.
It examines 52 “emblematic attacks” in northwest Syria, including 47 attributed to the Russian-backed Syrian government.
Russian warplanes were solely implicated in a deadly March 5 strike on a poultry farm near Marat Misrin that sheltered displaced people and in three strikes next to a hospital damaged in the rebel-held town of Ariha on Jan. 29, the report said. Russia denies involvement in the latter attack, it said.
The region is home to a mix of Islamist militant and opposition groups, many of which fled other parts of Syria as President Bashar Assad, with Russian backing, seized back territory from them.
“The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that pro-government forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” it said.
Karen Koning AbuZayd, a panel member, said: “Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS-controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights...
“The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes.”