I meet the tribe’s leader, Sheikh Loubnan Abdulrazaq Al-Khaiwan, on a rainy morning. He is sitting in his mudhif, a beautiful common house entirely built with reeds. “We have no conflict here because of the way society is made,” says the Sheikh. “The tribes have good relationships between each other, so people respect the law.”

Still, even without war, this haven is threatened and could disappear again. Even without dams and dikes, the marshes could dry out. Since people started moving back in 2003, the marshes have twice shrunk to almost nothing: once in 2008 and again in 2015.

There are several causes. Climate change is causing hotter summers: 130 degrees days are not unusual in this part of Iraq, which has intensified water evaporation. Iraq’s water policy, prioritizing agriculture over environmental concerns and allocating most water to wasteful, intensive irrigation practices is depleting resources. “Cronyism is also an issue,” says a local activist who did not want to be named. “If the Minister of Water Resources is, for example, from Najaf, then he will give a lot of water to Najaf and nothing to us.”

But the biggest threat comes from further upstream. The headwaters of both the Tigris and the Euphrates are in Turkey. The waters flow from Turkey through Syria and, finally, into Iraq. “When they let the river flow, we have water. When they don’t, we don’t have water,” says the Sheikh.

There are agreements about how the resource is shared. “But Turkey doesn’t respect them,” says al-Asadi. Turkey has long been building dams upriver, especially on the Tigris. The most recent project, the contentious Ileus dam in southeast Turkey, will be operational by the end of 2017 and will dramatically reduce the flow of the river.

Moreover, a new actor has made an appearance in 2014. “The 2015 drought was worsened because ISIS had control over dams on the Euphrates in Ramadi and Fallujah,” says al-Asadi. In the summer of 2015, the jihadist organization closed the gates of the dam in Ramadi, lowering the level of the river. ISIS has since lost control of Ramadi and Fallujah but still controls Syria’s biggest dam on the Euphrates, the Tabqa dam, near Raqqa.

The water is not only scarce, it is also too salty, says al-Asadi. “There is less water, it evaporates more and it doesn’t flow, so the salinity level is increasing.” Before Saddam drained the marshes, the salinity level wouldn’t go above 200 parts per million (ppm). Today, 2,500 ppm is considered acceptable. In 2015, it went up to 20,000 ppm in some areas of the marshes, says the engineer.

That year, the Ma’dan buffalo breeders lost around a third of their livestock and had to sell more animals in order to buy grass and drinkable water for the remaining ones. Ali Murad Hassan, a farmer, lost 15 buffalo. “They just drank the water and died,” he explains, as we drink hot buffalo milk in his reed house.

Hassan has six children. “It’s not that many,” he laughs with obvious pride. He decided to stay in the marshes despite the droughts, the difficult living conditions, the lack of electricity and running water. Despite the searing heat in summer and the wet, cold weather in winter. Despite the fact that there are no schools in the marsh and that his older daughter, Inas, who is around 10, can’t read nor write. If things really get bad, he may go to another part of the marsh, he says. Many have done that. Some even moved to the suburbs of Chibayish, the nearest small town. But until he is really forced to do so, he will stay.

For captivating pictures of the areas and people please visit the source website, Roads and Kingdoms.