One Man Envisions and Creates Iraq’s First National Park
Azzam Alwash in the beloved marshlands of his childhood
‘Garden of Eden’ returns to life as Mesopotamian marshlands are officially recognized as Iraq’s first national park
The Mesopotamian marshlands in southern Iraq are known by many as the birthplace of civilization. Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the area was once an oasis of aquatic wildlife filled with lush reed beds, water buffalo, lions, foxes and otters. It was also one of the world’s most important migratory flyways for birds.
In the mid-1990s, Saddam Hussein burned, drained and poisoned the area in retaliation against Shiite Arabs, who had staged uprisings following the Kuwait invasion and fled to the marshes for refuge. The wetlands once known as the Garden of Eden turned to dust bowls, driving out the descendants of ancient Sumerians who had inhabited the area for thousands of years.
As a young boy in Iraq, Azzam Alwash spent many days out in the marshes with his father, who was head of the irrigation department in the area during the early 1960’s. He fondly remembers looking over the side of the boat into very clear water, watching large fish dart away, and spending precious time with his busy father whose work often required his presence in the field.
When Hussein rose to power, Azzam moved to the United States to escape persecution. He went on to earn advanced degrees, established a successful career as a civil engineer and married an American woman, raising two daughters in the Los Angeles area. From afar, he read with horror and disbelief news reports that trickled in about the marshes’ destruction.
When the Hussein regime fell, Azzam knew the time had come for him to go back to restore the beloved marshes of his childhood. In 2003, he made the difficult choice of giving up a comfortable life in California and moved back to war-torn Iraq, with the hopes that one day his own daughters might be able to see the place he had loved as a child.
Plan of action
Once he got past the initial shock of seeing the drained marshes for the first time, Azzam took on the seemingly impossible challenge of bringing environmental protection to the forefront of a nation focused on restoring peace and rebuilding infrastructure.
In 2004, Azzam founded the nonprofit Nature Iraq and put his experience in hydraulic engineering to use, surveying the region and developing a master plan to restore the marshes. He reached out to the environment and water resource ministries to educate government officials about the environmental, social and economic benefits of restoring the marshes.
His work was not only politically challenging but dangerous as well. Security guards are a regular presence during his field work with his staff, and the possibility of kidnappings looms large. Nature Iraq’s office has been raided by armed terrorists.
Despite these hurdles, the Mesopotamian marshes are starting to flourish again. Almost half of the original area is now flooded again, and the Sumerians have begun to reestablish their lives. In what is perhaps the most telling evidence of his success elevating the importance of the environment in Iraq, this spring, the restored marshes became the country’s first national park.
Azzam Alwash won the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize.
While continuing the restoration work, Azzam is now striving to eliminate a new challenge to Iraq’s environment: an extensive chain of 23 dams upstream along the Turkey-Syria border which would reduce the flow of water into Iraq to a mere trickle.
Ultimately, the marshes can only be protected if there is an international agreement on water-sharing, he maintains. “The preservation of the marshes is not only Iraq’s duty; it is the world’s duty. This is the cradle of civilization. This is where agriculture started. This is where writing was invented.”
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