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2013 Prize: Q&A with Azzam Alwash

July 10, 2013

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.

How did you first learn about Saddam Hussein’s destruction of the Mesopotamian marshes and what motivated you to dedicate your life to restoring them?

I first heard about it when it happened in 1994, and I couldn’t believe it was possible to completely drain the marshes. The marshes I recalled from my childhood were twice the size of the Florida Everglades and I knew it would take an engineering mastermind to fully drain them.

Once I understood that by draining, poisoning and setting fire to the marshlands Saddam Hussein was systematically exterminating the Marsh Arabs, I knew I needed to return to Iraq to restore not only the marshlands, but an ancient people’s way of life. However, at that time, going back to Iraq meant execution on the spot. So, my initial efforts focused on going to Iraqi opposition meetings in the United States to raise awareness of this horrific environmental weapon of mass destruction.

When the war began in 2003, I returned despite the danger and political instability because I knew if there was a time to begin the restoration process it would have to happen alongside the fall of Saddam Hussein. I couldn’t predict the shock and sadness I would feel when I returned to see the marshlands reduced to desert dust. But now, nearly a decade later, the marshlands have been restored to 50 percent of their original size and are slated to become Iraq’s first national park.

How are you working to preserve other areas in Iraq in the face of terrorism and oil interests?

Nature Iraq has identified over 300 areas in Iraq for preservation, with the ultimate goal of protecting 10 percent of Iraq’s land as national parks. However, our work doesn’t come without danger. Not only is terrorism a threat, but there are 25 million landmines on the border of Iraq and Iran.

Rather than investing time and money in deactivation, we’d like to continue to preserve these areas and create a series of national parks along the border of Iraq and Iran. The bombs will deactivate naturally over time, but if we don’t preserve the land now, we will lose it forever.

Working in Iraq also means working within a complicated economy heavily grounded in oil. Oftentimes, we need permission from oil companies to access key areas for preservation. We do our best to collaborate with them toward achieving the ultimate goal of land and ecosystem preservation.

How are dams affecting the environmental health and political stability between Iraq and Turkey?

Currently there are 23 dams in Turkey and they have a great impact on Iraq. Of course, they generate electricity but they do so at a great cost, creating deserts downstream, turning the soil into sand, and devastating Iraq’s agriculture. In addition, the dams make it impossible to fully restore the marshland ecosystem.

In particular, the current construction of the Ilisu Dam is worrisome. It will reduce the Tigris River to a mere trickle and is certain to cause strife between neighboring countries. We need to change the dynamics of the discussion over water to ensure we don’t find ourselves in a war over water. I believe it shouldn’t be an argument about whose water it is, but how can we work together to make sure there is enough for everyone.

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