Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq's southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style. A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
Straddling Iraq's famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert. It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the "ahwar", as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes' surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year. That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
"The water returned, and with it normal life," said 35-year-old Mehdi al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts. Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
"Ecotourism has revived the 'ahwar'. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners," Mayali said. A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a "mudhif" or guesthouse, also run by locals. "Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes," said Jassim al-Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq. The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.
"It's a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry," said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 per cent of state revenues. The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq's southern province of Dhi Qar.