Draining Upstream, Chaos Downstream: The Eco-Political Disaster of Iraq’s Waterways

Published February 10th, 2019 - 11:17 GMT
An Iraqi waterway nearby oil fields (AFP/FILE)
An Iraqi waterway nearby oil fields (AFP/FILE)


By Ty Joplin


“The water's just bad. It's so salty, it's not like it was before,” Amjad Mohamed, an Iraqi who used to live in Iraq’s famed marshes says. ”I prefer not to be in the marshes than to see them like that.”

Mesopotamia, the ancient cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the primary region for agricultural production in Iraq, is drying up and withering away.

It is slowly dying.

Through a combination of governmental mismanagement, climate change and upstream damming, the waterways, marshes and wetlands that helped nourish the world’s first civilizations, are being drained; its waters made stagnant, toxic and undrinkable. Experts estimate that they are now hovering between 40-50 percent of their original size, and are shrinking fast.

Downstream from the marshes, major cities like Basra are beginning to crumble due to the region’s toxic water crisis and depleted river flow due to damming from Turkey, Iran and northern Iraq. Major demonstrations against the Iraqi government and perceived Iranian meddling highlight the region’s ungovernability and exploitation by other nations and opportunistic local players.

The gradual destruction of Iraq’s vast waterways has been a political and economic project undertaken by a series of regimes looking to extract oil and water from Mesopotamia.

Experts and activists tell Al Bawaba the marshes and downstream cities are again facing a series of existential threats that may politically reverberate across the entire country.

As Mesopotamia evaporates and are is replaced by muddy wastelands and dried up riverbanks, so too go the prospects for long-term stability and peace in Iraq.


Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq 2000-2009 (NASA)


Part One: Draining Upstream




The Marshes that Made the Middle East

Ma’dan people on Iraq’s marshlands (Wikipedia)

The Mesopotamian marshes are the biggest in the Middle East, and have been inhabited by Ma’dan farmers who have worked its arable land and waterways for nearly six thousand years. The Ma’dan people, also sometimes referred to as the Marsh Arabs, harvest rice and reeds among other plants while fishing and herding water buffalo.

They live in loose clusters of small villages mostly on or near the water, speak their own distinct dialect of Arabic and are mostly Shia Muslims. Their homes are often made of the reeds found thriving in the marsh waters.

The marshes historically constitute some of Iraq’s most arable land and helped to feed the world’s first civilizations. The Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian Empires all depended on the marshes’ annual crop yields and waterways to survive.


Homes built on the marshes (AFP/FILE)

As a whole, the region of Mesopotamia was the site of fierce battles between the Roman and Parthian Empires between 150 BCE and 300 CE, who each vied for the region’s land, which formed part of the famed ‘Fertile Crescent.’

“And, of course,” says Richard Porter, a former consultant with Nature Iraq, who has worked to preserve the marshes for years, “the Iraq Marshes are the most important wetland for wildlife in the Middle East, providing a safe haven for millions of migratory birds and a breeding place for unique bird populations.”


Saddam’s Obliteration of the Mesopotamia



The most serious threat to the marshes’ existence came in the summer of 1991, when Iraq’s ruler Saddam Hussein began a program to drain and redirect its waterways as a way of punishing the Ma’dan people.

Many of them supported rebellions throughout the country between March-April 1991: Saddam’s regime, who was reeling from successive and costly wars againsts Iran and Kuwait, wanted to set an example for other potential dissidents by destroying the marshes and uprooting the Ma’dan.

Saddam targeted the two rivers which fed the marshes their water: the Tigris and the Euphrates.

For the Euphrates, Saddam’s regime diverted nearly its entire waterflow into a canal named the Third River, which bypassed the marshes and led directly to the sea.

For the Tigris, Saddam’s engineers built a complex series of gates and locks which  blocked water from reaching distributaries of the wetlands. The regime also redirected water flow to an embanked canal running away from the marshes. According to a 1993 New Scientist report, Saddam’s plan for emptying the marshes closely followed a similar plan developed by the British in the 1950s.

Nadhir al-Ansari, a professor who specializes in civil engineering and hydrogeology at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, was in Iraq when Saddam began draining the marshes. “The people were told that pro-Iranian soldiers are hiding in the marshes. There were no Iranian soldiers within the marshes,” he tells Al Bawaba.

Hassan Partow, a program manager at the U.N. Environment's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch and author of the book “Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem,” was monitoring the drainage via satellite imagery.

“I recall the government mounting a propaganda campaign dehumanizing the Ma’dan as being backward, immoral and also treacherous for providing refuge to those who participated in the popular uprising of 1991,” Partow says.

“The drainage was portrayed as an agricultural  project to reclaim the marshes, which were written-off as a wasteland infested with mosquitoes and disease.”

The result of the years-long drainage project was devastating. Ninety percent of the wetlands were totally emptied, and of the 250,000 Ma’dan subsisting off the land, only a few thousand remained. The rest were forcibly displaced and in a desperate search for alternate means of stability and welfare. About 100,000 trekked to refugee camps inside Iran.

Saddam had engineered one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in history, evaporating the ancient waterways that fed much of the country in the name of preserving his increasingly untenable hold on power.

“The marshes were a state outside of Saddam’s control. The resources were a great boon,” remembers Fadel Duwaish, who was forced to leave to leave the marshes after Saddam began their destruction. “The marshes contained a wealth of fish, the wealth of raising water buffalo. You could turn the reeds into paper. All of the marsh was a treasure.”

By 2003, the marshes were a wasteland of hip-high mud.


The End of Saddam, the Beginning of a Climate Catastrophe




The end of Saddam’s regime in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq also ended his project to eliminate the marshes. Soon thereafter, Ma’dan people who previously relied on the marshes for their livelihoods began to restore them.

“It was quite spontaneous at first. With the collapse of the government, marsh communities almost immediately took matters in their own hands,” Partow says.

“Together with some engineers from the local irrigation offices, they used excavators to punch holes in the dykes and the water started flowing back again. It was as simple as that.”

With the water’s restored flow back into the marshlands, water buffalo herders, fisherman and others, who were forced to relocate north, slowly began to return.

However, hopes that an ecological miracle might be pulled off were cut down by the daunting reality that Turkish and Iranian damming has been severely constricting water flow downstream into Iraq.

Both countries have instituted ambitious energy programs that call for industrial-scale dams and riverworks to be built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.


A local resident of Hasankeyf overlooks the Tigris River (AFP/FILE)

One such dam being built now in Turkey threatens not only to further cut off Iraq from the Tigris River, but to drown a 12,000 year-old town in its reservoir.

The Ilisu Dam project will be Turkey’s second largest and will almost completely submerge Hasankeyf, a small town in the majority-Kurdish, southeastern region of Turkey. Its old citadel, churches, walls and mosques are all scheduled to disappear under the reservoir's depths. International investors pulled out to disavow responsibility for the town’s disappearance, but local Turkish investors are financing the project, which is estimated to be completed within a year.

To these dams that are built upstream, Iraq’s government downstream is virtually powerless to stop or challenge them.

On top of the damming, some regions of the marshes are being re-made into oil fields. Underneath the ancient waterways lies vast fields of oil that almost single handedly finance the Iraqi state and account for the majority of its GDP.

Al-Ansari estimates that about a fourth of the marshes have already been converted to oil fields and dry agricultural land. Nature Iraq, a non-profit organization dedication to conservation explains that Iraqi politicians have not prioritized the needs of the marshes.

According to the organization, the politicians “view the rivers as abstract resources that they can pollute, divert, drain and trade away without consideration to the communities and ecosystems that are destroyed in their wake.”

In 2008, the marshes were 75 percent restored. By 2015, they had shrunk down to 58 percent of their original size. In 2019, the marshes’ sizes average 40-50 percent of what they once were.



The effects of climate change are further damaging the prospect for the marshes’ restoration. Volatile weather conditions including droughts and sudden floods are creating unstable waterflows that in turn make it unpredictable to try and till the land.

The summer of 2018 brought an intense heat wave and dry spell that wreaked havoc in Iraq’s south, but the following winter has been marked by intense floods: “the current availability of water in the marshes that came after severe dryness in the past summer had led to noticeable confusion in the locals' movements as many families have left the marshes targeting the banks of River Tigris and Euphrates in summer to keep their buffalo alive, then they came back again after the rains and raising the water levels,” reports Richard Porter to Al Bawaba.

A recent climate report by the Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks paints a dark picture for Iraq’s long-term viability: “Climate change is currently manifesting itself in prolonged heat waves, erratic precipitation, higher than average temperatures and increased disaster intensity.”

One such prolonged heat wave hit 50C and knocked out southern Iraq’s fledgling water infrastructure, sending 100,000 to the hospital thanks to overly-salinated water.

The report estimates that by 2050, the average temperature of Iraq will shoot up by 2C, meaning such heatwaves will only increase in intensity.

By drying the rivers upstream, diverting waterways to other projects and shrinking marsh use for oil extraction, many of the marshes are now slowly evaporating and growing stagnant. As a consequence, its salinity levels are rising, making the water and soil that constitute the marshes themselves too toxic for life.

Resource extraction, mismanagement, climate change and water salinization are slowly eating away at the Mesopotamia and threatening to realize Saddam’s project of eliminating the marshes entirely.


An Eco-Political Crisis: The South of Iraq is Becoming a Desert

An Iraqi man sits near a stagnant pool of water in former marshlands (AFP/FILE)

In the natural world, certain species, called bioindicators, can be studied to measure the overall health of the environment. The honey bee is an example of a bioindicator.

If the honey bee’s global decline is a bioindicator of a mass extinction caused by climate change and human activity, then the erasure of Iraq’s marshes is a bioindicator signalling the deterioration of Iraq’s ecological and political stability.

The marshes’ disappearance is a byproduct of a decline in overall water resources matched with an uptick in unpredictable climate; two processes that are partially to blame for much of Iraq’s instability as a whole.

Mass demonstrations by disenchanted Basrawis protesting against the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions have tested the fledgling Iraqi government’s political will and ability to respond to such crises, which will likely only get more urgent and far-reaching.

Millions of Iraqis in the south of country, in one way or another, depend on the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates for their lives and livelihood. They nourish Iraq’s agricultural sector, which employed roughly 30 percent f the country in 2006 but now only employs 19 percent.

Their dwindling waterflows is slowly sapping Iraq of its ability to feed itself and export food, while stripping away jobs and brewing discontent with the government. It’s also forcing mass migrations of Iraqis away from agricultural and economic dead zones:

“From the ISIS crisis and the military operation [against the jihadi group], we had nearly three million internally displaced people (IDPs). But we are expecting four million displaced people over the next eight years from the water crisis,” Yousif Muayed Youssef, an official at Iraq’s Environment Ministry explained.

Though these downward trends are difficult to reverse or control by a singular state like Iraq, Hassan Partow and Nadhir al-Ansari think the country has options to stave off the worst of the ecological damage.

“By controlling the taps of the headwaters, Turkey and Iran clearly have a key role in determining the fate of the marshes,” Partow says.

“At the same time, there is definitely a lot of things that Iraq can do to restore the marshes by shifting from wasteful surface irrigation to more efficient techniques like drip irrigation, growing less water-intensive crops, limiting fish pond farming, and promoting non-farm livelihood alternatives.”


Oil wells burn on the marshes (AFP/FILE)

Al-Anari echoes the call for better drip irrigation: “They should first abandon ongoing irrigation methods. They should use drip irrigation or sprinkler irrigation. This will save plenty of water.” Al-Ansari also recommends better utilizing non-conventional water resources by building more wastewater treatment centers to reuse water and desalinate currently polluted water.

To the central question of Turkish and Iranian damming, Partow calls for Iraq to “expand the dialogue beyond individual dams. Riparian countries of the Tigris and Euphrates basin need to be encouraged to work towards reaching agreement on the equitable and reasonable sharing of its waters, while recognizing the need not to harm the marshes.”

Local authorities must also contain unauthorized use of the rivers that siphons off water and rethink the development of oil fields on top of the marshes, Partow says.

Though these policy moves has the potential to restore the marshes and legislate a more livable and peaceful southern Iraq, they can only be enacted by a functioning state. The absence of such policies likewise suggests that Iraq’s government has yet to fully materialize and begin governing.

In its stead, a vicious cycle is taking form: local and international actors continue depriving Iraq’s scarce water resources, which in turn exacerbates Iraq’s political problems while making the country more volatile and less governable.

Abdel-Karim Hussein, a 48 year-old farmer’s land in the middle of Iraq’s so-called ‘greenbelt’ has already turned into dust.

“I had 1,200 sheep, and now I have just 80. They all died or went blind from the salty water coming out of the drying wells and canals,” he told a reporter.

“I had 1,300 dunums (30 hectares) of farmland. Now it’s completely transformed to desert.


Part Two: Chaos Downstream



 Basra is Dying

A child carries a tire outside the burning Iranian consulate in Basra, Iraq (AFP/FILE)

In late 2018, 100,000 people were hospitalized in Basra, Iraq over the period of a few weeks, inundating hospitals and creating a frenzy of media attention. They were poisoned by the city’s toxic water supply, which was pumped untreated after a heat wave knocked out the city’s water treatment facilities.

Despite months of protests inside Basra to protest their unlivable conditions, little was accomplished: the city’s polluted water infrastructure remains under repaired and underserved even as its oil almost single-handedly funds the Iraqi state.

What makes this catastrophe important isn’t its sheer scale, but the fact that it has happened to Basra dozens of times before, and will likely happen again in the near future.

That’s because Basra is not governed as a city for people to live in, but as a strategic extraction point for its resources.

The city of Basra not only lies on top of one of the biggest oil reservoirs in the region, it’s also a port city providing access to Arabian/Persian Gulf. This rare combination makes it one of the most valuable cities in the Middle East to control, and one of the most hotly contested in the region’s history. A millennium of power struggles between warring empires and powers including the Ottomans, Persians, British, Shiite tribes and the Iraqi government have left the city’s infrastructure in tatters.

Developing the city with its residents' welfare in mind was never occupying governments' priority.

After countless generations of this mindset governing the city, Basra is beginning to break down, and residents of Basra now point the blame blame at Iran for trying to become the latest exploiter of its location and resources.

Basra’s troubled history is a case study in how colonial and imperial projects can continue to haunt a people, sabotaging prospects for their future.


Basra's History of Negligence and Resource Predation

Basra’s waterways from 1913 (Wikimedia Commons)

The ongoing water crisis in Basra is the latest to wreak havoc in the city, but its long history reveals the grim reality that water has simultaneously served as its lifeline and toxin.

The Shia-majority city of Basra lies in Iraq’s southwest. As the convergence point of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers near the Arabian/Persian Gulf, it has served as a strategic entry point to occupy the whole of Iraq and was almost always the first battleground in wars to control the country.

Its vast oil reservoirs of oil have also made it one of the most economically vital patches of land in the Middle East. Its fields currently account for 70% of Iraq’s oil reserves whose revenue in turn funds 90% of Iraq’s state budget.

As a region, Basra has been the staging point for control of Iraq’s economy and political sphere. In a developmental sense, the city has been designed to optimize its oil output to the detriment of the infrastructure that services its residents.

An entry from the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica featured a visit to Basra at the time, which described a dire situation for the town’s people:

“At high-tide, accordingly, the town presents a very attractive appearance, but at low-tide, when the mud banks are exposed, it seems dirty and repulsive, and the noxious exhalations are extremely trying. The whole region is subject to inundations. The town itself is unhealthy and strangers especially are apt to be attacked by fever.”

This account from British colonial anthropologists eerily mirrors contemporary accounts of Basrawi daily life: choked by fumes from depleted water flows making for a proverbial season of ‘low tide’ water, dry seasons and massive, toxic salt and sewage build-ups.

In 2018, Hamid Abdul-Wahib lives in a makeshift hut surrounded by a “simmering soup of rubbish and sewage.” His water had been undrinkable for months.

“It’s useless,” Abdul-Wahib explained to a visiting reporter from the London-based Independent. “You can’t even clean the dishes in it.”

“Taste this glass, it’s saltier than the sea,” he said. The reporter noted that the water was so hot it stung to touch.


Basra oil field (AFP/FILE)

From 1600 to the early 20th century, Basra changed hands between the Ottoman Empire, Persian Dynasties, local Shia tribes and militias and the British, who eventually captured the city from the Ottomans in 1914 as a way of safeguarding and bolstering their oil enterprises inside Iran.

Throughout much of this contested time, canals were built and dried up, irrigation systems that were developed by one ruling power were abandoned and left to deteriorate, while development upstream in Turkey steadily drained water flow to Basra.

The British modernized the city’s infrastructure around its potential as a industrial shipping route in the Middle East, but systematically excluded Basrawis from having a voice over their own governance. Local tensions with the British built up around the country and especially in its central-southern regions, and a revolt began. By 1920, the entire country was battling against the occupying British powers.

The British were overwhelmed, and eventually negotiated for more autonomy of the country under the rule of the Hashemite family, who were installed as royals.


Saddam's Systemic Poisoning of Basra



They too were overthrown by a revolution that took place in the mid-20th century, which eventually ended with the Baathist party taking over Iraq. In 1979, Saddam Hussein took the reigns of power, and began violently crushing dissent to his rule. Basra’s restive Shia population twice rebelled against Saddam, and were twice violently put down.

In 1991 during the Gulf War, militias linked to the Shia-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIPRI) and the Badr Organization fought against units from Hussein’s Republican Guard and were beaten back. As a reprisal for the uprising, which coincided with several other violent revolts against Saddam throughout the country, Saddam ordered a mass crackdown against the city’s civilian population.

When again the city revolted against Saddam in 1999 in what is known as the al-Sadir Intifada, Saddam ordered mass executions of civilians and punished the city by redirecting its economic activity to a nearby port town of Umm Qasr.

The city was left politically abandoned by Saddam’s regime with its infrastructure in tatters.

A subsequent investigation by AP in May 2000 found that sewage was flowing directly into the Tigris River, exposing millions in Iraq’s south to serious waterborne diseases. It noted that a recent heatwave of 50C had turned the region’s stagnant water into incubation pools for bacteria.

Sewage was also found to be seeping near homes and playgrounds around Basra. "The sewerage system is collapsing, everything is contaminated. Many diseases are spreading incredibly such as typhoid. We can do nothing about it,” a local resident told reporters at the time.

“As the hot summer months loom ahead, some fear that infection from contaminated water could reach catastrophic levels,” the report also observes.

“Today, most of those treatment stations either lack spare parts or are completely out of service,” the report added.


Ungovernable: Britain's Failure to Control the City

The 2003 occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British forces only exacerbated the city’s ongoing problems with governance and infrastructure.

British forces assigned to occupy and repair the city reported their engineers were unable to sustain any rebuilding efforts thanks to fight from local Shia militias.


British occupying forces search men men Basra, Iraq in March 2003 (AFP/FILE)

A recently released report by the U.S. Army regarding the failures of the Iraq War detailed British Major General Jonathan Shaw’s inability to control the political landscape of Basra. Shaw said Basra resembled “Palermo, not Beirut,” since it was governed by warring mafia-like militias who had built up formidable presences in Basra over decades.

According to the report, “As Shaw saw it, most of the violence in Basrah took place simply because the British troops were there.”

Despite a concurrent U.S. troop surge, the British, who were mainly tasked with overseeing Basra, gave up the task and began to withdraw from the city completely. They handed control of the region to the local Iraqi government.

The provisional government faced the same problems as the British forces, and were unable to quiet the city’s Shiite militias, who wielded significant political influence.

Throughout the 2000s, Basra’s water infrastructure suffered steadily thanks to violence, looting, lack of maintenance and under-development.

Impoverished residents were forced to spend much of their income on water delivered by private tankers. Looting and pillaging of the city’s pipes, pumping and treatment facilities crippled its ability to service its roughly 2 million people.

UNICEF helped pump water to thousands of residents but ran out of money and withdrew their services. Outbreaks of astro-enteritis, brucellosis, hepatitis and typhoid fever became common, especially among children.

A 2007 feasibility study on improving Basra’s chronic water problem concluded starkly that much of the city’s water infrastructure would need to be rebuilt from scratch. The study estimated it would take roughly 40 years and tens of billions to fix the city’s supply shortages, purify the E. Coli-infected water and re-develop its treatment and distribution facilities.

Historically, Basra was developed to streamline money into the pockets of central governments and empires, but its administers almost never organized the city’s infrastructure around the needs and welfare of its local inhabitants, who have long been marginalized.


Basra Today: On the Fringe

Residents of Basra are treated for waterborne illnesses in a hospital in Aug 2018 (AFP/FILE)

Evidently, little has been done to repair the millennium-long negligence of Basra’s waterways. The pattern of dangerously toxic water causing a public health crisis is happening again.

Decades of reduced water flow compounded by a 50C heat wave in July 2018 malfunctioning the city’s electric grids raised the waters’ salinity level. It also brought the city’s population to the political boiling point.

In Sep 2018, about 100,000 people inside Basra were sent to the hospital thanks to the city’s water supply, which contains six times the salt level that is recommended to be safe by the World Health Organization.

Because much of the city lives below or around the poverty line, many were unable to afford access to private water vendors to drink and use for hygiene, which costs $120-140 per month.

Demands for safe and affordable drinking water cascaded into mass demonstrations against the corrupt, bloated governance of the Basra region by Baghdad and Tehran. Hundreds organized and marched through a nearby town’s streets, where they were met by Iraqi security forces who fired live rounds into the crowd. They killed one young man and injured three others.

“When we heard the news that they killed someone from our area, everyone jumped in the car and went calling others to join,” said Ali, a government employee who spoke to The Guardian.

“There I saw they had brought two helicopters and three armoured vehicles. I wondered where was this force when Daesh [ISIS] took Mosul?”

The Iranian Consulate in Basra burns (AFP/FILE)

During a march in Sep, one speaker stood up among the crowd and said: “This gathering of ours is for nothing but to demand reform, and to demand services and not to be neglected.  Today, from this podium, a Basra podium, in the name of the heroic al-Tamimyah area, we demand that the local administration come to this area to look at its streets, and services with their own eyes, [if they could] find any. There are no services in this destroyed area.”

Tens of thousands throughout Basra and other towns in the south marched, chanting slogans against the local government and what they perceived as Iranian meddling in their politics.

The Iranian Consulate in Basra was one of the first targets of the protestors, who stormed inside and set it alight on Sept 7. Protesters were heard yelling “Out, out Iran, Basra remains free!”



“People are out demanding their rights,” Ali said. “They see that Iraq is dying, strangled by these parties that have been looting us for 15 years but who are more interested in serving Iranian interests than our interests. We either save the country or it will be lost.”

Iran reportedly controls several powerful militias operating in the city, and has worked to cement its presence in Iraq's political and military system. Demonstrators see Tehran as the latest in a long line of imperial states seeking to control the destiny of their city, even while its services crumble.

“Iran has destabilized Basra with their armed gangs,” Sattar Hamdi a 50 year-old day laborer said to a reporter after the consulate burned down. “They have the upper hand here and with the politicians in Baghdad. I’m appealing to any foreign country, even Israel, for help because we’ve already lost Iraq to Iran.”

The police response grew more lethal: around 27 were killed and hundreds more injured by the security forces.

Over time, the protests’ size and scope have dwindled and as a result, the ongoing unrest in and around Basra has been under-covered and swept aside for other, more breaking stories.


A resident of Basra looks at the city’s toxic water (AFP/FILE)

The lack of media attention hasn’t stopped the demonstrators, who see no signs of improvement. On Jan 18, three days before Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi made a surprise visit to tour the city’s infrastructure projects, protesters burned a police car outside an administrative building.

The problems plaguing Basra haven’t just materialized since the summer of 2018, they’ve defined the political identity of Basra for a millennium.

Basra has yet to be developed in accordance with the welfare and needs of the people, who have suffered through generations of colonizers and imposed governments prioritizing economic and geostrategic objectives.

Central and southern Iraq, with its waterways, marshes, downstream cities and ancient history, are regions still designed for their resources and strategic value to be extracted, but they yet to be built for their people to live there.

As long as this remains the case, waves of hospitalizations due to polluted water, mass marches, forced migration and political chaos are all not only likely; they are inevitable.

© 2000 - 2023 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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