Posts tagged azzam alwash
Posts tagged azzam alwash
As a child, Azzam Alwash loved to visit Iraq’s Southern Marshes with his father, a hydraulic engineer under Saddam Hussein. This huge, diverse ecosystem, larger than the Florida Everglades, is believed by Biblical and Qu’ran scholars to be the site of The Garden of Eden. Alwash describes the marshes of his childhood as “a peaceful, peaceful place.”
As a young man, Alwash fled Saddam’s regime to study in America. He remained in the U.S. for nearly a quarter century, becoming a hydraulic engineer like his father. He applied for citizenship, married an American and had two daughters.
Although he was away from his native Iraq for almost 25 years, Alwash was haunted by his childhood memories of the marshes. He swore that one day he would show his wife and his daughters the Garden of Eden he had known.
Twenty years ago Iraq’s Southern Marshes were an aquatic wonderland in the middle of a desert. The wetlands extended across the southern end of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers divide. Mesopotamians settled this area (known as the “fertile crescent”) in the fifth century B.C.E. Their culture went on to invent writing, literature, mathematics, metallurgy, and ceramics.
Wetlands are the most productive ecosystems in the world, and Iraq’s Southern Marshes were no exception. They were formerly home to water snakes, otter, wild boar, hyenas, foxes and lions. They were a spawning ground for many fish species as well as a stopover for millions of migratory birds. They are still home to the threatened Marbled Teal, the endangered Basra Reed-warbler and the Sacred Ibis, commonly depicted in Egyptian art.
The Iraq Marshes are inhabited by the Ma’dan, or Shi’a “Marsh Arabs” who have a unique water- and boat-based culture. It’s no secret that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Muslim who brutally repressed his fellow Shi’ites. After a 1991 Shi’a uprising Saddam Hussein attempted to destroy the Ma’dan people and their home.
Thousands of Marsh Arabs were murdered, their livestock killed and their homes burned. Pesticides were broadcast to kill wild plants and animals. Canals and dikes were built to rob the marshes of water, and remaining wells were poisoned. By the end the crusade, up to half a million people had been displaced and the Southern Marshes had shrunk to less than 10% of their original size. A place that was once home to abundant wildlife and a unique human culture had been reduced to poisoned salt flats full of land mines.
The destruction of Iraq’s Southern Marshes was not only a cruel ethnic cleansing but also one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters. As is so often the case in war, the million of animals and plants whose lives were lost after the marsh destruction were considered only “collateral damage.”
But Azzam Alwash is a man who doesn’t let politics, religion, geography, or war get in his way. In June 2003, only three months after the American invasion, Alwash flew to Iraq. In the company of bodyguards he visited his beloved marshes. Alwash describes his horror at the condition of the marshland: “I remembered water and green vegetation as far as the eye could see… what I saw was nothing but desert, dust and the ruins of settlements.”
Alwash did see one small glimmer of hope. After the 2003 US invasion, the local Ma’dan had made holes in Saddam’s dikes, and a small amount of water was once again flowing into the marshes. These areas were, against the predictions of ecologists, showing signs of recovery. (Bio-geeks can read the 2005 technical paper here).
Alwash gave up his lucrative engineering practice in California and devoted himself full-time to the restoration of Iraq’s Southern Marshes. He formed a nonprofit foundation, Nature Iraq, the country’s only environmental organization.
Alwash lined up support from the new Iraq government, the United Nations, Turkey, Italy, and U.S. agencies. His hydraulic engineering (which involved creating large openings at strategic areas in the dikes), together with record precipitation, brought about a large-scale restoration of the marshes. Over 50% of the original area was reflooded by 2010, and thousands of Ma’dan returned to their home.
It’s Alwash’s hope that by 2013 the marshes will be sufficiently restored to become an eco-tourism attraction. Unfortunately, his plans depend on securing a large amount of water in a drought-stricken region with an increasing number of upstream dams.
You can watch the stunning 50-minute PBS/Nature documentary on Alwash and his restoration work here. As Alwash says “Some people think we are silly, working on the marshes in the middle of civil insurrection, gangs, kidnapping… but life cannot stop, waiting for the civil war to be finished. There’s work to be done and a new generation to educate.”
Below is a 3-minute excerpt in which Alwash describes his return to the devastated marshes:
I believe that no matter how evil an act, some good will eventually come of it. The restoration of Iraq’s marshes is one of the best things to come out of the second Gulf War.
Azzam Alwash is an extraordinary human being. Rather than becoming involved in the sectarian hostilities in Iraq, Alwash transcends divisions of sect, religion, culture, and geography. He cares for all beings, human and non-human. As he puts it “I… do not practice any form of devotion, save for protecting the creation of God.”
Alwash sacrificed his steady income and secure home and left his family. He lives in daily danger as he oversees the largest ecological restoration in history and attempts to undo some of the mind-boggling damage wrought by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Azzam Alwash embodies my definition of a modern-day saint.
Article Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida. Images courtesy of PBS Nature and Nature Iraq.