Gangs, smugglers, poison? Iraq’s dead fish kick up stink

Gangs, smugglers, poison? Iraq’s dead fish kick up stink
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An Iraqi fisherman makes his way through dead fish and plants in the Delmaj marsh, east of the city of Diwaniyah, in Iraq’s southern province on August 25, 2020. (AFP)
Gangs, smugglers, poison? Iraq’s dead fish kick up stink
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The chief of the local fishermen’s union sails across the Delmaj marsh, in Iraq’s southern province of Diwaniyah, on Aug. 5, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 02 September 2020

Gangs, smugglers, poison? Iraq’s dead fish kick up stink

Gangs, smugglers, poison? Iraq’s dead fish kick up stink
  • The causes of the mass premature deaths remain unclear
  • Civilizations in southern Iraq have made a living from farming and fishing for centuries

AL-DELMAJ MARSHES, Iraq: Poisoned water, illegal dams and even armed clashes: these days, fishing for precious barbels in Iraq’s majestic river marshes involves navigating precarious waters.
For centuries, civilizations in southern Iraq have made a living from farming and fishing the whiskered, carp-like fish native to the twin Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Hussein Serhan is a proud descendant of one such family.
Like his father and grandfather before him, the 70-year-old has spent his life on the riverbeds of Diwaniyah province.
Season after season, he carefully scoured vast stretches of water for schools of the ray-finned barbels he calls his “children.”
This year, he didn’t have to look far.
Thousands of tons floated up to the surface of the wetland — dead.
“It’s an ecological disaster,” Serhan told AFP.
“We lost all our revenues. We need years to recover.”
The causes of the mass premature deaths remain unclear, but marsh-based fishermen have some theories.
“Gangs,” said Hussein Ali, 37, who fishes on another bank of the 325-square kilometer (125 square mile) Al-Delmaj marsh, in neighboring Wasit province.
Ali and others blame groups with alleged links to fish importers for poisoning local supplies, although they did not specify what substance may have been used.




A picture taken on Aug. 5, 2020, shows dead fish floating to the surface of the Delmaj marsh, east of the city of Diwaniyah, in Iraq’s southern province. These days, with poisoned water, illegal dams, and even armed clashes, fishing for precious barbels in Iraq’s majestic river marshes means navigating some very choppy waters. (AFP)Caption

“They have also installed dams along rivulets that feed the marshes, which means water levels drop,” Ali added.
He said anyone who tries to remove the dams, installed to horde water levels and fish stocks, is threatened.
“More than 2,000 families live off fishing in Al-Delmaj. We don’t know how to do anything else,” Ali said.
It’s not Iraq’s first riverine disaster: in 2018, fish farmers alleged their stocks were poisoned after millions of carp, used in the national dish masgoof, died.
In March 2019, a United Nations probe put the cause down to the Koi Herpes Virus, saying overstocking and low-quality river water likely furthered its spread.
This year, a preliminary study by the agriculture ministry ruled out any viral or bacterial cause, so allegations of foul play are again floating to the surface.
In June, Iraq’s water ministry said its employees were shot at as they tried to remove illegal dams.
Then, in early August, a local fishing tribe clashed with an armed group that had allegedly erected some dams.
Furious locals accuse both federal and provincial authorities of failing to secure the marshes.
“Where is the state in all this? Where are they as these disasters threaten to annihilate our fish?” said Ali.
Iraq’s Agriculture Minister Mohammed Al-Khafaji said an investigation had begun.
“We are determined to reveal the perpetrators to the public,” he said.
One speculative theory swirling among Iraqis is that Turkish and Iranian companies that usually import seafood stocks into Iraq had paid people to deliberately poison the marshes or disrupt water flows.
The alleged motive? Concerns that Iraqi consumers were opting for increasingly cheap barbels, squeezing the imported seafood out of the market.
Barbels are typically sold to neighboring Gulf countries but this year, with borders closed for months due to COVID-19, the whiskered fish flooded local markets.
Iraqis have opted for these affordable domestic catches, stacked high in wooden stalls, instead of imported fish.
“We were self-sufficient this year and imports stopped, which frustrated others. That’s why they did this,” said Khafaji, declining to be more specific.
Imad Al-Makrud, who farms barbels in Al-Delmaj, noted that domestic demand had indeed swelled.
“We lowered our prices to sell. The kilo dropped from 10,000 Iraqi dinars to 2,000 (just over $1.50),” he said.
“Iran and Turkey, the main exporters of fish to Iraq, lost a lot of money,” said Makrud.
The marshes are home to rich flora and fauna, migrant birds and huge water buffalo, whose milk is made into a creamy cheese eaten at Iraqi breakfasts.




A picture taken on Aug. 5, 2020, shows dead cattle near the Delmaj marsh, in Iraq’s southern province of Diwaniyah, during a tour of the Iraqi Health Minister. (AFP)Caption

Hassan Al-Rusha, a buffalo herder in Wasit, said poisoned waters killed 50 of his flock and caused more than 135 miscarriages of pregnant buffalo.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he told AFP.
The losses are heavy for his village, which relied on just over 3,000 water buffalo to earn a living.
And there could be long-lasting damage to the marshlands’ biological diversity, warned Diwaniyah’s environmental commissioner Raghad Abdessada.
“This environmental catastrophe that took place will affect the region’s economy and the people who are living off this work,” she told AFP.


Top Lebanese hospitals fight exhausting battle against virus

Top Lebanese hospitals fight exhausting battle against virus
Updated 4 min 55 sec ago

Top Lebanese hospitals fight exhausting battle against virus

Top Lebanese hospitals fight exhausting battle against virus
  • In recent weeks, Lebanon has seen a dramatic increase in virus cases, following the holiday season

BEIRUT: Death stalks the corridors of Beirut’s Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where losing multiple patients in one day to COVID-19 has become the new normal. On Friday, the mood among the staff was even more solemn as a young woman lost the battle with the virus.
There was silence as the woman, barely in her 30s, drew her last breath. Then a brief commotion. The nurses frantically tried to resuscitate her. Finally, exhausted, they silently removed the oxygen mask and the tubes — and covered the body with a brown blanket.
The woman, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, is one of 57 victims who died on Friday and more than 2,150 lost to the virus so far in Lebanon, a small country with a population of nearly 6 million that since last year has grappled with the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history.
In recent weeks, Lebanon has seen a dramatic increase in virus cases, following the holiday season when restrictions were eased and thousand of expatriates flew home for a visit.
Now, hospitals across the country are almost completely out of beds. Oxygen tanks, ventilators and most critically, medical staff, are in extremely short supply. Doctors and nurses say they are exhausted. Facing burnout, many of their colleagues left.
Many others have caught the virus, forcing them to take sick leave and leaving fewer and fewer colleagues to work overtime to carry the burden.
To every bed that frees up after a death, three or four patients are waiting in the emergency room waiting to take their place.
Mohammed Darwish, a nurse at the hospital, said he has been working six days a week to help with surging hospitalizations and barely sees his family.
“It is tiring. It is a health sector that is not good at all nowadays,” Darwish said.
More than 2,300 Lebanese health care workers have been infected since February, and around 500 of Lebanon’s 14,000 doctors have left the crisis-ridden country in recent months, according to the Order of Physicians. The virus is putting an additional burden on a public health system that was already on the brink because of the country’s currency crash and inflation, as well as the consequences of the massive Beirut port explosion last summer that killed almost 200 people, injured thousands, and devastated entire sectors of the city.
“Our sense is that the country is falling apart,” World Bank Regional Director, Saroj Kumar Jha, told reporters in a virtual news conference Friday.
At the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the main government coronavirus facility, there are currently 40 beds in the ICU — all full. According to the World Health Organization, Beirut hospitals are at 98% capacity.
Across town, at the private American University Medical Center — one of Lebanon’s largest and most prestigious hospitals — space is being cleared to accommodate more patients.
But that’s not enough, according to Dr. Pierre Boukhalil, head of the Pulmonary and Critical Care department. His staff were clearly overwhelmed during a recent visit by The Associated Press, leaping from one patient to another amid the constant beep-beep of life-monitoring machines.
The situation “can only be described as a near disaster or a tsunami in the making,” he said, speaking to the AP in between checking on his patients. “We have been consistently increasing capacity over the past week or so, and we are not even keeping up with demands. This is not letting up.”
Boukhalil’s hospital raised the alarm last week, coming out with a statement saying its health care workers were overwhelmed and unable to find beds for “even the most critical patients.”
Since the start of the holiday season, daily infections have hovered around 5,000 in Lebanon, up from nearly 1,000 in November. The daily death toll hit record-breaking more than 60 fatalities in in the past few days.
Doctors say that with increased testing, the number of cases has also increased — a common trend. Lebanon’s vaccination program is set to begin next month.
The World Bank said Thursday it approved $34 million to help pay for vaccines for Lebanon that will inoculate over 2 million people.
Jha, the World Bank’s regional director, said Lebanon will import 1.5 million doses of Pfizer vaccines for 750,000 people that “we are financing in full.” He added that the World Bank also plans to help finance vaccines other than Pfizer in the Mediterranean nation.
Darwish, the nurse, said many COVID-19 patients admitted to Rafik Hariri and especially in the ICU, are young, with no underlying conditions or chronic diseases.
“They catch corona and they think everything is fine and then suddenly you find the patient deteriorated and it hits them suddenly and unfortunately they die,”
On Thursday night, 65-year-old Sabah Miree was admitted to the hospital with breathing problems. She was put on oxygen to help her breathe. Her two sisters had also caught the virus but their case was mild. Miree, who suffers from a heart problem, had to be hospitalized.
“This disease is not a game,” she said, describing what a struggle it is for her to keep breathing. “I would say to everyone to pay attention and not to take this lightly.”
A nationwide round-the-clock curfew imposed on Jan. 14 was extended on Thursday until Feb. 8 to help the health sector deal with the virus surge.
“I still have nightmares when I see a 30-year-old who passed away,” said Dr. Boukhalil. “The disease could have been prevented.”
“So stick with the lockdown ... it pays off,” he said.