Giving up a comfortable living and family life in California, Azzam Alwash returned to war-torn Iraq to lead local communities in restoring the once-lush marshes that were turned to dust bowls during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
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 of 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 1960s. 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, Alwash moved to the United States to escape persecution. He went on to earn advanced degrees at prestigious schools, established a successful career as a civil engineer and married an American woman, raising two daughters in an affluent Los Angeles suburb. From afar, he read with horror and disbelief news reports that trickled in about the marshes’ destruction.
When the Hussein regime fell, Alwash 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.
Once he got past the initial shock of seeing the drained marshes for the first time, Alwash 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, Alwash 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; it was dangerous as well. Security guards are a regular presence during his field work with his staff, and the possibility of kidnappings and assassinations loom large. Nature Iraq’s office has been raided by armed terrorists.
Despite these hurdles, the Mesopotamian marshes are starting to flourish again as a result of Alwash’s advocacy. 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 his country, the Iraq government voted to establish the marshes as the country’s first national park in July 2013.
While continuing the restoration work, Alwash is now fighting a new threat to Iraq’s environment: an extensive chain of 23 dams upstream along the Turkey-Syria border, which if completed, would reduce the flow of water into Iraq to a mere trickle. He is organizing a flotilla tour to call global attention to the threat of water-based conflicts and turning the dams into an opportunity to revive conversations about the need to protect water resources in the broader region.