Iraq: where water used to flow

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The Mesopotamian marshlands in southern Iraq were once the largest wetland ecosystem in Western Eurasia. But after years of drought and political turmoil, they’re in danger of disappearing.

Geese walk across dry, cracked land next to a shallow river. A canoe is on the river and basic structures can be seen in the distance (photo: John Wreford)

A parched land

The Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq are a rare area of wetland in a sea of desert, and are fed by the waters of the Tigris-Euphrates river system. Drought is often an issue in Iraq but a lack of rainfall, internal political strife and the damming of rivers further upstream in Turkey have combined to make the current situation even more dire.

A small herd of buffalo look for food in the dry grass surrounding a narrow and shallow strip of water. An empty canoe is lying in the stream (photo: John Wreford)

Food remains scarce

Buffalo struggle to find enough to eat in the parched landscape of the Central Marshes near the town of Al-Chibayish. Temperatures in this part of Iraq can often rise above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer and climate change is already taking its toll. Drought is becoming more frequent, leading to increased desertification and the reduction of fertile ground.

A canoe-shaped boat travels down a stretch of water. A man is standing at the end of the boat holding an oar, while a woman sits in the middle of the boat (photo: John Wreford)

Keeping a unique culture alive

The Marsh Arabs — also known as the Ma’dan — are comprised of many different tribes. They have developed a unique culture that relies entirely on the diversity of the marshlands they inhabit. For centuries, subsistence farming of water buffalo and fishing have been the mainstays of their survival.

A woman pours a long, white stream a milk into a bucket (photo: John Wreford)

Supporting the local economy

Umm Hassan makes buffalo cream at home which she sells to others in the area. The local economy revolves around the wetlands. The milk is delivered by boat from the buffalo herders, but as the buffalo struggle to find suitable grazing, the yield is falling.

A traditional canoe-like boat sits on the dry and cracked marshland (photo: John Wreford)

Poisoned earth

A traditional Marsh Arab boat sits on the cracked and dry earth of the Central Marshes. Considered by many to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden, the marshes once covered over 15,000 square kilometers. During the 1991 Shia uprisings in Iraq, then-president Saddam Hussein drained and poisoned the marshes, driving most of the population into the already overcrowded cities.

The corpose of a water buffalo lies on the dry earth of the marshes (photo: John Wreford)

A victim of drought

The corpse of a dead water buffalo dumped along a track away from the water of the marshes. Water buffalo have been kept in the marshes since the Sumerian Dynasty. The Sumerians’ developments in agriculture, irrigation and the domestication of animals is in part the reason Mesopotamia is known today as the Cradle of Civilization.

Three children sort through their catch of fish on the banks of the marsh (photo: John Wreford)

A meager catch

Hiba, Zeinab and Hassan sort through their catch of fish. Because of low water levels, the size and quantity of fish is small. The Marsh Arabs once used spears for fishing, but now some are resorting to the illegal use of high voltage electric generators. Many fish species have already completely disappeared from this wetland ecosystem.

A boy stares at the camera and puts his hand on the back of a large, black water buffalo (photo: John Wreford)

Looking after the herd

A young Marsh Arab boy looks after his family’s herd of water buffalo in the Hammar Marshes. The family has a herd of around 15, but have lost several to malnutrition and disease. Traditionally the buffalo would leave at sunrise to feed in the marshes and return at sunset. It is now common for them to return before midday, still unfed.


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