In Iraq, Drought and Abundance within the Mesopotamian Marshes

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On my last visit to the Mesopotamian swamps in March, I arrived at Sayeed Hitham’s for breakfast. The pandemic had kept me away for more than a year.

The sun was just rising, the sky pink and gold. Hana, Hitham’s wife, stood smiling at the door to her reed house. “Tea is ready, bread is ready,” she said. “Come in here.”

We sat on the worn carpet around a glowing kerosene heater, drank tea and dipped the shallow naan that Hana had just baked in hot buffalo milk. “What did it take you so long, Emi?” Sayeed asked in a reproachful tone. “We haven’t seen you forever.”

Indeed. One year was the longest year I had not visited the Mesopotamian swamps since I started documenting the area in late 2016.

At the time journalists and photographers were pouring into northern Iraq where the battle for Mosul was raging, I was going the opposite route and heading south. I was looking for a different view of the country, something different from the war I’d been reporting on for the past year and a half.

It was a moment of real discovery for me – one of those few times when you connect with a place, with a people.

The Mesopotamian swamps, a series of wetlands near the southeastern border of Iraq, feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert – and they are. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Eridu are in close proximity. In the broader region known as the cradle of civilization, there were early developments in writing, architecture, and complex society.

A people called the Ma’dan, also known as the Marsh Arabs, live in the swamps and live deep in the wetlands, mainly as buffalo breeders in remote settlements, much of which are only accessible by boat. Others live in small towns on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates that supply the swamps.

Many of the Ma’dan left decades ago when the swamps were ravaged by war, hunger and oppression.

During the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, the wetland’s proximity to the Iranian border turned the area into a zone of conflict, a theater for bloody battles. Later, in the early 1990s, after a Shiite uprising against his Ba’ath party, Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the region to which many of the Shiite rebels had fled as a punishment and as a means to suppress the uprising.

The swamps turned to desert for more than a decade, until the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq took place.

At this point, damage had already been done. In the early 2000s, less than 10 percent of the area’s original wetland existed as functioning marshland.

Today, after being flooded again and partially restored, the swamps are again at risk – from climate change, a lack of environmental awareness at the local level and, perhaps most dramatically, the construction of dams in Turkey and Syria and upriver in Iraq.

In 2018, an extremely hot summer followed by a lack of rain caused a severe drought. In some areas, the water level dropped more than three feet.

“That’s it,” I remember as the little boat crossed the swamp in which the corpses of young buffalo were floating in the water. Buffalo breeders like Sayeed Hitham lost about a third of their livestock, and many had to leave when the areas turned into a desert. They emigrated to neighboring cities – or even further to the poor suburbs of Karbala, Basra or Baghdad.

But then, a few months later, the water began to rise. People came back. I photographed the renewal just like I photographed the drought the year before. But it felt back then – it still feels – like a sword of Damocles hanging over the region.

Much is at stake, both ecologically and for the people who live here. When the already depleted swamps dry up again, the Ma’dan may have no choice but to go and throw themselves from a peaceful enclave to a troubled land.

Still, I kept coming back. Over the years I’ve seen drought and abundance, frozen winters and burning summers. I’ve seen children born and seen them grow up. I followed Sayeed Hitham and his family as they moved around in the swamp, the location of their new home depending on the water level – and each time built with reeds.

I even got used to the giant water buffalo, known locally as being famous and the main source of income for most Ma’dan.

The buffalo scared me at the beginning. But I’ve learned to walk through a herd of horns, let myself smell, pet the fluffy, friendly calves – the ones that try to lick my hand like oversized dogs.

As I presented my progress over breakfast to Sayeed, he burst into his wonderful, exuberant laugh. “You still don’t know anything, Emi,” he said. “You can’t even tell what’s famous in the herd.”

Then he said seriously and still smiling, “It’s okay. You have time to learn. “