As Saddam Hussein drained Iraq's famed marshes to punish the rebellious tribesmen who lived in them, Amjad Mohamed packed his few possessions, grabbed his fishing rod, and fled south to Basra with his extended family.
For 12 years, they lived in one of the poor, neglected neighborhoods on the outskirts of Iraq's second largest city. He worked as a laborer in the oil fields and tried his hand at catching fish in nearby streams.
All the while, though, Mohamed dreamed of returning home, and when the U.S.-led invasion started in 2003, he was among the first to hack at the dikes Saddam's regime had built to block the rivers from replenishing the wetlands. Eagerly embracing his ancestral-village days after the arrival of American troops, he bought one of the narrow, tar-covered boats favored by generations of fishermen and took to the water once more.
But after a few recent lean years as a fisherman and several run-ins with tribal elders, he decided to call it quits and head back to the city for good.
"The water's just bad. It's so salty, it's not like it was before," he said, as he sat on the stoop of his cousin's electrical-goods store alongside one of Basra's rubbish-clogged canals. "I prefer not to be in the marshes than to see them like that."
The partial restoration of the Mesopotamian marshes has been heralded as one of the few success stories to emerge from Iraq's chaos. Nowadays, however, the greatly reduced water flow of the two rivers that feed the marshes—the Tigris and the Euphrates—once more threatens the livelihoods of some of the area's inhabitants.
From a high of around 75 percent restored in 2008, the wetlands are now at 58 percent of their average pre-drained level and look set to shrink below 50 percent this summer.
The marshes, which historically stretched to an average of 3,725 square miles (9,650 square kilometers) in Iraq, have always withered amid high evaporation between June and September. And it's not rare to have freak years, such as 1989 and 2009, when they shrink to almost nothing.
But dam construction in Turkey and Iran has reduced the combined volume of the rivers by up to 60 percent, according to the United Nations. Given the impact of low rainfall and wasteful irrigation practices in Iraq, environmentalists predict the marshes will remain at a fraction of their typical size.
The water's just bad. It's so salty, it's not like it was before. I prefer not to be in the marshes than to see them like that.
"This is what we're going to see in the future. We're going to have to get used to it," said Azzam Alwash, who heads Nature Iraq and was among the small band of environmentalists who helped spearhead the renewal.
The Milk's Too Thick; There's Not Enough Fish
After such a prolonged exile, few of the Marsh Arabs who rushed back as the reeds regenerated and the fish returned are keen to follow Mohamed. But many in the marshes are struggling to make ends meet.
Akbar Saad has tended water buffalo in the southern Hammar Marshes since his family moved there soon after the invasion. Each of his animals used to produce between eight and nine liters (nine quarts) of milk a day. But the high water salinity has reduced the quality of their feed and afflicted Saad's herd with a host of health problems, including skin diseases and high blood pressure, cutting his yield in half.
"There are not enough nutrients in the grasses anymore. The milk's thick, and there's just not enough of it," Saad said as he helped hoist a 53-gallon (200 liters) drum of milk into a truck headed to a cheese factory.
The Islamic State's surge into northern and western Iraq last summer has created another obstacle. "We used to sell to Tikrit, Ramadi, and other places in Anbar, but that's not possible now," he said with a bitter laugh, referring to areas that have been overrun by the jihadists. (Read "ISIS Destruction of Ancient Sites Hits Mostly Muslim Targets.")
Deprived of these important markets, Saad and his counterparts have been limited to selling across the largely impoverished south of Iraq.
Livestock farmers have it easy, though, say the fishermen who are responsible for most of the economic activity in the marshes. "Even when we fish through the night in the summer, it's difficult to catch enough," said Abbas Hasheem, as he haggled over the price of his last few wagay (a local measurement equal to about nine pounds, or four kilograms) of fish. "I worry about the next few years."
Some of the most prized species, such as gatans, which can weigh up to 22 pounds (ten kilograms), have already vanished from the marshes, while the elevated saltiness has attracted fish that were previously found only out at sea.
The marsh dwellers haven't always helped themselves, conservationists hasten to add. Many have traded their nets for high-voltage transmitters, which stun the fish but also kill bottom-feeders and thereby stunt the food chain. (Fishermen in some marshes have reached agreements to ban these devices.)
The Environment Is Worse, but Amenities Are Better
For the most part, though, it's the harsh natural conditions that are complicating their work.
Rad Abbas Missan sets out for distant, less populated regions of the marshes well before the sun's up. Steering through the darkness, he tries to put some distance between himself and Chibaish, whose population has swelled tenfold to more than 60,000 since 2003.
But as the water level has fallen and salinity has rocketed—to 15,000 parts per million (ppm) in some areas, up from 300 to 500 ppm in the 1980s—he's found himself more limited in his movements.
"The engine corrodes so fast, it needs regular cleaning," he said, pausing to scrape weeds from his boat's battered hull. "And in a lot of places it's so shallow you have to use the paddle, which is slow and makes it difficult for us to go everywhere."
Even with this reduced mobility, the fishing fleet of the Hammar Marshes is still hauling in roughly a hundred tons of fish a day. And with locals now rushing to make money before the hard summer months, Jassim Al-Asadi, who runs Nature Iraq's local office, fears rampant overfishing will soon exact a permanent toll.
"The lowering of the water has been miserable for fishing, but there are no other economic activities in the marshes, so people just continue as before. What else are they going to do?" he asked.
Marsh Arabs, nostalgic for the richer past, are still keen to emphasize that there have been many improvements to their lives.
"There is modern housing, there's refrigeration, there are roads, schools. Now the boats have engines so it takes no time to get the grasses," said Om Hussein, who supplements her family's income by harvesting reeds to weave into mats.
But there's no escaping the worsening water quality.
Residents once drank straight from the marshes; now they must buy from water treatment plants. Waterborne diseases, particularly those causing skin and gastrointestinal problems, are on the rise, but with no doctors near most of the isolated villages since government forces destroyed five small clinics in the early 1990s, medical care is difficult to reach.
In such circumstances, even tribal relations—which are key in a part of the world where tribal sheikhs are usually more important than government authorities—appear to have suffered on occasion partly as a consequence of the water conditions.
Experts and Locals Divided on Solution
Locals are torn about what ought to be done (some fishermen want to march to Baghdad to draw attention to their plight), but conservationists say there's no mystery as to how things got so bad so fast.
When the river water levels were high, the low-saline Tigris washed over the marshes, cleansed them, and pushed the salty residue into the saltier Euphrates, which flows along the western edge. "But now the Tigris is so low that the Euphrates provides most of the water in the marshes," Nature Iraq's Al-Asadi said, standing near two rusty barges built to ship reeds down the Euphrates to paper factories in Basra.
The central government has commissioned a detailed study on how to protect the marshes, but environmentalists are skeptical that it will lead to a solution anytime soon. "The Ministry of Water Resources does not have enough influence to enforce this on the ground," Al-Asadi said. "These things are often theoretical. There's an environmental law, but not even the Ministry of Environment cares for this law."
It's possible too that the Islamic State's seizure of much of the middle Euphrates will further imperil the marshes. Already the jihadists have shown themselves willing to use water as a weapon by cutting off government-controlled areas. Their recent capture of the dam at Ramadi a year after they took the Fallujah dam bodes ill for downstream parts of Iraq.
In the meantime, however, life in the marshes continues apace. Having suffered massacres and an environmental catastrophe, the Marsh Arabs are accustomed to a life of struggle. No war or natural disaster, they say, will break their bond with the wetlands.
"When the water returned, we came back immediately," said Missan, the fisherman with boat troubles. "You see, our lives are related to the water."
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