The drying-up of the colossal Hur al-Azim wetland on the Iran-Iraq border has had a devastating impact on local plants and wildlife. In the hot summer months, without an expanse of cool water in which to bathe, buffalo with their big shaggy coats become dehydrated and die. When this happens, local villagers also lose their livelihoods.
Last week a 62-year-old man named Ghasem was rushed to Susangerd Hospital in Khuzestan. He had attempted suicide near the bamboo barn he had built for himself and his nine-strong family, just 48 hours after three of his buffalo died from overheating.
Ghasem survived, but has not spoken a word to anyone since before the incident: not since the day, in fact, that he dumped the animals’ bodies into the back of a rented van. Now recuperating at home, he just lies mute and stares up at the rafters.
Like many of his neighbors, Ghasem kept dairy buffalo – seven in total –by the side of the Bakri Road, not far from the city of Rofayyeh a stone’s throw away from the marshes. When he first bought the animals they were bad-tempered and undomesticated, but he brought them round with care and attention. Ghasem’s large family was sustained by their milk; each creature would produce 10 to 12 liters of milk a day if they were well-fed and watered, fetching twice the price of cow’s milk. In the summer the family made yogurt drinks with shallots and mountain celery, and sold it in pouches made from goatskins. They also made butter.
The buffalo had long endured sporadic reductions to their feed. But this summer, the lack of water and extreme heat drove them insane. Three months ago, their skin turned scaly and began to flake off in places. At night they lowed in pain, and sometimes they didn’t sleep until morning. The more anguished they became, the more Ghasem did too.
This family’s strife is a story being repeated up and down Khuzestan – but all anecdotally, and not backed up by data, which gives officials an excuse to keep letting it slide. In 2009 a “buffalo census” put the official number of water buffalo in Iran at 459,000, including about 100,000 in this province. There was never a repeat survey, or if there was, the results weren’t made public. The animal’s main habitats in Khuzestan are around the Shadegan and Hur al-Azim wetlands, as well as the Azadegan plain, Rofayyeh city and surrounding villages, the Bamadj wetland near Shush Shoush and the smaller wetlands close to Izeh.
Put simply, these creatures need water to survive. And for now at least, tens of thousands of families in Khuzestan need them to survive. Each of Ghasem's buffalo was worth 50 to 100 million tomans (US$1,871-3,743): a huge amount of money in Iran, let alone in deprived Khuzestan. To a family of nine, the loss of three at once means nothing short of ruin.
"If we don’t do something about the issue of water buffalo in Khuzestan, we’ll soon see this valuable species eliminated,” Abbas Al-Mahdi, a livestock expert in Hamidiyeh, told IranWire. “Last week I went to Rofayyeh to look at the situation in one ranch. Locals told me that for a while buffalo had resorted to the scant water coming from the Nisan River – then when the Nisan dried up, they made the long journey to the Shatt to quench their thirst. But Hur al-Azim was no longer wet. Most of the cattle in the area are dead now, or else they have severe skin and gastrointestinal diseases, and are extremely thin."
Buffalo are physiologically sensitive to extreme heat and direct sunlight. They often have to be submerged in water during the hot hours of the day. Without this, the first stage of dehydration comes on quickly, and can lead to buffalo having skin and respiratory problems. This is followed by weakness and a loss of appetite, which can give rise to illnesses like pneumonia. Insufficient water can quickly wipe out a herd.
Mina Bavi, the wife of an employee of Susangerd Municipality, says her husband told her that last week two different locals brought their cows with them to the municipal offices in protest over water shortages: an issue that recently prompted weeks-long mass protests in Khuzestan.
She has always bought her buffalo milk from local ranchers, but of late has been struggling to get hold of any. "For years, I used to order milk from one rancher in the morning,” she said, “and my husband would deliver it through the office. I used to make homemade yogurt with it. But lately, they say they don’t have any milk. The yield of each cow had dropped from 10 liters to less than three. It’s no surprise, when the animals are constantly lethargic and lying around in corners, no matter how much you douse their bodies with buckets of water."
Dairy buffalo account for the majority of water buffalo kept in Iran. But they’re also bred for meat, transporting goods and plowing agricultural land, and in rural areas some people even use buffalo manure for fuel. Al-Mahdi adds that due to the traditional and very limited buffalo-keeping methods used by locals, “Khuzestan buffalo are kept away from impurities and disorders from cross-breeding. They’re a pure, precious species that should be retained.
“The only possible way to do this is to ensure water enters the wetlands. If it doesn’t, we’ll see the widespread dying-out of this species and worsening poverty in the villages. Other species of animals in the region will also be in danger of extinction."
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Khuzestan under a pseudonym.