Travelling through the Mesopotamian Marshlands of Iraq on a boat with his father, Azzam Alwash felt he had glimpsed a garden of Eden- a land of abundance, peace and natural beauty. “In my childs’ mind eyes, the reeds were like forests with ‘trees’ extending to the sky and pathways made of small canals in which our boat floated. Every now and then we came to an open space through which air blew, cooling us down,” he recalls. “The sounds of frogs were all around us and the water was so clean you could see the fish scramming away from our boat. Birds would fill the sky when we disturbed them.”
Whilst Alwash’s memories of the time he spent as a young boy with his father in the marshes remained untouched, the marshes faced a rather brutal fate. In reprisal to the Marsh Arabs support of an uprising against the Saddam regime, in the 1980s the marshlands were drained of their water and life withered away. Alwash was lucky enough to escape the turmoil of Iraq under Saddam to America where he trained as a hydraulic engineer, when he returned 25 years later he vowed to help restore that Garden of Eden. In 2004, he setup Nature Iraq, the country’s first and only environmental organisation with the aim of restoring the Marshlands- a task many believed to be impossible.
Stretching over 6,000 square miles, the Iraqi Marshland have played an important role in global ecosystems by supporting rare wildlife and rich biodiversity for over 7,000 years. The marshlands were home to birds such as the night heron, pied kingfisher, little grebes and marbled ducks as well animals such as wild boars, water buffaloes, foxes, otters and water snakes. It was a veritable verdant paradise of water and life in the middle of desert in which Marsh Arabs lived in reed huts and wooden boats.
Yet in the 1980s, the marshlands were drained by Saddam’s forces in retaliation of the Marsh Arabs support for an uprising against him. “The destruction of the marshes was sold by the regime of Saddam under the auspices of making more land available for agriculture (as if Iraq suddenly ran out of land) when in fact he was trying to deprive his opposition of a base of operations,” explains Alwash.
“The worst engineered environmental disaster of the last century”- UNEP
Saddam destruction of the Mesopotamian Marshlands was described by the United Nations environmental program as the worst engineered environmental disaster of the last century. Thousands of Marsh Arabs were killed, their reed huts burnt down, water sources were poisoned to drive them out until half a million of them were displaced either into Iran or North Iraq. Once considered to be the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, the Marshlands shrunk to just 10 percent of their original size.
After a 25-year absence, Alwash decided to travel to Iraq in the summer of 2003 to visit the marshes. Although he was aware of the destruction wreaked on the marshlands under Saddam’s regime since 1994, he admits that he was still deeply shocked by what he saw. “The site of destroyed marsh areas were like a physical blow to me, the Garden of Eden that I had in mind was replaced by arid, dry, dead lands that extended to the horizon. The islands that once supported families now contained nothing but destroyed homes. The Garden of Eden had been turned into the ashes of hell.”
War And Water Shortages- The Marshes Begin To Recover
Even so, there were already signs of recovery when Alwash arrived. “Even before Baghdad fell, the people had started breaching dykes and disabling pumping stations that were used to prevent water from going into the marshes and to drain water, respectively. Nature is amazing. By March 2004, areas of the marshes had begun recovering to the point where they resembled the conditions of the past. Yet it was haphazard and not uniform. The natural flow pattern had been disrupted and the hydro pulse that was driven by the natural floods had stopped as a result of the dams built upstream in Turkey and Iran.”
The recovery of the Marshlands took another hit in the drought years of 2008 and 2010 when the restored marshes shrunk from 65% of their original size to around 35%. Now, however, the marshes are back on the right track and Azzam Alwash states that they are now at the half way point to full recovery. Water scarcity, however, remains a huge problem especially as the Mesopotamian Marshlands are part of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. “The limited amount of fresh water available now is expected to be even less in the future as development upstream occurs and the population increases. The problem is both political in a sense as the sharing of water requires policies that make sure that the marshes get their fair share of the fresh water.”
A New Generation of Iraqi Environmentalists
Alwash points out that an agreement between Iraq, Turkey and Syria is the solution alongside efforts to improve agricultural irrigation techniques in Iraq to stop water resources being wasted. Furthermore, efforts need to be made to prevent waste and drainage water being dumped into the Tigris-Euphrates. “Soon after arriving in Iraq I realized that the devastation [to the marshes] was all the way up stream with most cities dumping raw sewage and industrial waste directly into the water of the Tigris and Euphrates – in other words, Iraq is using the Tigris and Euphrates as open sewers!”
Indeed, Alwash states that part of the aim of setting up Nature Iraq was to help educate a new generation of Iraqis about the importance of protecting the environment be they mountains or marshes. “It was vital that I take under my wing young Iraqis and train them… I am glad to report to you that I am about to hand over the day to day operations of Nature Iraq to the next generation of environmental activists.” As well as the difficulties they face in restoring the marshes, those who work in region face very real security threats. Many don’t venture into the marshes without an armed security guard. This may seem a step too far but a dozen employees of the project have died in terrorist attacks in the last seven years.
Half Way Through An Impossible Task
When I ask Alwash what motivates him to continue his work through droughts, dangers to his life and other difficulties, he replies that in all honesty he is not sure how to answer that question. “Coming to Iraq has had a huge tax on me personally and professionally, regardless of the recognition that Nature Iraq has gotten over the years. It is my ardent desire to see my children enjoy the marshes as I did, but that is not enough to explain my personal motivation…I suppose in a sense the impossibility of the task is what motivates me.
“In 2002/03 people were saying that the marshes cannot be restored, nor do the people of the marshes want them restored yet the evidence on the ground countered those claims and 8 years later we have the marshes back (albeit only 50% of the marshes) and some 100,000 people have come back.” Wildlife is flourishing in the marshlands again, reeds are shooting up and the Basra Reed Warbler and the Greater Flamingo can now been seen flying across the marshland. The Marsh Arabs that are returning to their homes in the marshes are also playing an important role in the recovery of this precious ecosystem.
A Future For The Marsh Arabs
As Alwash insists, “Marsh Arabs restored the marshes and not Azzam Alwash. My job is limited to helping them come up with solutions to their problems…As for what the Marsh Arabs want, well they want TV’s, electricity, schools and hospitals and mobile phones and there is no reason why these can not be provided in a manner that is sensitive to the environment.” In fact, one of Nature Iraq’s projects combines two traditional ways of life- the agricultural mud house with the reed arches of the Marsh Arab huts- to create a stunning and sustainable mud house that comes with modern conveniences such as electricity, indoor plumbing, internet services and connectivity to the rest of the world.
Even so, Alwash admits that brick houses remain the status symbol of ‘success’ in the region and so it will take time for these concepts to take root. However, Alwash remains optimistic (he did achieve the impossible after all) that as soon as people recognize that the new methods are more suited to their environment they will embrace them. As he adds with a smile, “I plan to move permanently to my mud house in the coming year to live and to preach…”
:: Images via Nature Iraq
:: Originally published as a two-part feature on Green Prophet.