She had more charm, he said, than all the young animals he had ever seen. At night, she slept as otters do, on her back with her feet in the air, and in her dreams she would give a wild little cry on three falling notes. He called her Chahala because it was the closest he could get to the sound of that poignant sound of sleep.

Sadly, Chahala did not live long, but Gavin Maxwell, the great Scottish naturalist, was a little bit in love with her and before long he’d found another orphaned otter cub. Maxwell said he often regretted his ability to identify with animals because it brought too much misery, but it also brought joy, and fame. He named the second otter Mijbil and the little animal became the star of Maxwell’s greatest book Ring of Bright Water.

Mijbil also appears at the end of another of his books, A Reed Shaken by the Wind, Maxwell’s account of his journey to the marshlands of southern Iraq in the 1950s which I’ve just finished reading. The book includes his first encounters with the otters that would make him famous but it’s also full of all the other animals that thrived in the marshes: water buffalo, boar, great clouds of birds. He also met and stayed with the Ma’dan, the people who’ve lived in the marshlands for thousands of years.

Sixty years on from Maxwell’s visit, the Ma’dan are still there, but the question is: for how much longer? You may have seen the pictures from Iraq in recent days: pictures of dying water buffalo, pictures of dried-out marshes, pictures of the Ma’dan packing up their things and moving to the towns because there’s nothing for them in their homelands any more. The marshes, fed by the Tigris and the Euphrates, are regarded by some as the original Eden. Look at it now.

We know the cause of course, but in Iraq it’s the worst it could be. The average annual temperatures in the country are increasing at nearly double the rate of Earth as a whole. Every year more arable land turns to desert. There is less water and less food and the UN has said Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to extreme temperatures. Poor Iraq. What has it ever done to suffer and suffer and suffer?

Despite it all, some of the people of the marshes are still living broadly the same kind of lives they lived when Maxwell met them in the 50s: their main source of income is the water buffalo and they live in houses made from reeds where they sleep alongside the animals. But in the summer they lost more buffalo than usual. It’s increasingly difficult to find good places to settle. And the lack of rain means the water they rely on has retreated or turned to salt.

I saw a similar effect when I visited Bangladesh in the aftermath of Cyclone Aila. Much of the agricultural land had been poisoned by sea water and a young woman I spoke to, Selina Begum, was clear about who to blame. "I blame western countries," she said, "because western countries are running their wealth up and up and don't think about the entire world and how the world will survive.” Some people in her country think it is the work of God, she told me, but she knows better.

In his own way, Gavin Maxwell seemed to predict what has happened in Iraq when he sensed that he was travelling through a part of the world that was in danger of disappearing. He could feel the threat and pull of the industrialisation that, sixty years later, Selina Begum would blame for the devastation in Bangladesh.

But Maxwell detected something else as well. He thought about it as he lay on the floor of one of the reed-houses at night listening to jackals skirling at the moon. The middle of the night, he said, is a time when the brain catches perilous glimpses of the truth and for him the truth was the fragility of a species, humankind, that thinks itself so important. “What went ye forth to see?” he wrote, “A reed shaken by the wind?”

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