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Iraq’s marshes are dying, and so is a civilization

Mohammed Hamid Nour is only 23 but is already nostalgic for how Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshes once were before drought dried them up, decimating his herd of water buffaloes.

Even at their centre in Chibayish, only a few expanses of the ancient waterways – home to a Marsh Arab culture that goes back millennia – survive, linked by channels that snake through the reeds.

Pull back further and the water gives way to bare, cracked earth.

Mohammed has lost three-quarters of his herd to the drought that is now ravaging the marshes for a fourth consecutive year. The United Nations said it is the worst in 40 years, describing the situation as “alarming”, with “70 percent of the marshes devoid of water”.

“I beg you, Allah, have mercy!” Mohammed implored, keffiyeh on his head as he contemplated the disaster under the unforgiving blue of a cloudless sky.

As the marshes dry out, the water gets salty until it starts killing the buffaloes. Many of Mohammed’s herd died like this, others he was forced to sell before they too perished.

“If the drought continues and the government doesn’t help us, the others will also die,” said the young herder, who has no other income.

In the 1990s, Iraq’s former strongman President Saddam Hussein drained the marshes – which were 20,000sq km (7,700sq miles) – to punish the Marsh Arabs, diverting the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers away from the land.

It was only after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that people began to dismantle the Saddam-era infrastructure, allowing the marshes to refill slightly, but they are still only 4,000sq km (1,500sq miles) by the latest estimates – also choked by dams on the Tigris and Euphrates upstream in Turkey and Syria and soaring temperatures of climate change.

Iconic culture

Marsh buffalo milk is an iconic part of Iraqi cuisine, as is the thick, clotted “geymar” cream Iraqis love to have with honey for breakfast.

The buffaloes are tricky to raise and their milk cannot be mass-produced, and their rearing is tied to the marshes

Both the Mesopotamian marshes and the culture of the Ma’dan – Marsh Arabs – who live in them, have UNESCO World Heritage status. The Ma’dan have hunted and fished there for 5,000 years, building houses from woven reeds on floating reed islands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together before pouring into the Gulf.

Even their beautifully intricate mosques were made of reeds.

Today, only a few thousand of the quarter million Ma’dan who lived in the marshes in the early 1990s remain.

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