November 1, 2022
The Cradle of Civilization
Azzam Alwash was finishing a workout when he joined our video call. Full of energy and laughing, he pounded up the stairs to a rooftop deck and wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead as he held his phone in front of him. The setting sun illuminated the skyline behind him in a light-yellow glow—it was 8:00 am in California, but 7:00 pm in Iraq.
Azzam works at the cradle of civilization, quite literally. His work takes place in the marshes of southern Iraq, a region defined by the confluence of the iconic Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In ancient times, the area was the heart of Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia, which means “between rivers” in Greek, is the birthplace of civilization. Its history is marked by the development of math and writing, the concept of time, and the invention of the wheel. Called the “Fertile Crescent,” the region also gave birth to agriculture and the first cities. It was the home of the prophet Abraham before he traveled west and is often described as the living Garden of Eden. “So, in a sense,” Azzam noted poetically, “these marshes don’t just belong to Iraq, they belong to us all.”
Azzam traversed those same marshes as a young boy. He remembers the wetlands of his childhood—a lush and verdant landscape—and speaks about them fondly. On Fridays, the day of rest in Iraq, he went duck hunting with his father, a busy irrigation engineer. The marshes were a water world full of rustling reeds, water buffalo, white ibis, and warm memories.
Then the dams were built.
During the 1990s, Saddam Hussein dammed and drained the marshes to stifle alleged insurrection and punish the Marsh Arabs who live there. The marshes, which covered 3,500 square miles in the 1970s, shrank to 290 square miles by 2002. The lush and fertile region evaporated, transforming Iraq into a barren desert landscape.
“Agriculture died in the land where it was born,” Azzam reflected solemnly.
Restoring Iraq’s Marshes
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Azzam, who had fled with his family to the United States, returned to Iraq in 2003. He founded Nature Iraq and set about restoring the marshes. “I naively thought I’d be here for two, three years at most. Then I’d go back and enjoy my American life,” he laughed. “20 years later, I’m still here.”
The southern marshes are a cornerstone of Iraq. According to Azzam, “60% of the water of Iraq arrives during a period of two months, from late March to early May.” When the marshes are functioning at full strength, this unique seasonal engine transforms the desert landscape into a productive wetland, washing away the layer of salt and brackish water that had accumulated the previous year and renewing agriculture in the surrounding region. During the annual flooding, fish begin to spawn and birds prepare for migration to Europe. Azzam calls the season the drumbeat of Iraq.
Azzam’s restoration plan is simple but effective: remove the dams. “If I have learned anything over the past 20 years, I have learned that nature is hearty and resilient,” he shared. “All that is needed for her to recover is for mankind to step out of the way. Let the water flow, and she will heal herself. Let the trees grow, and she will heal herself. Have respect for nature—just get out of the way.”
It’s difficult to approximate the amount of restored marshland since Azzam began his work in the early 2000s. Seasonal variability, combined with periods of drought, results in different assessments. Estimates range from 30% to 60% restored to 1970s levels. Azzam was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2013 for his central role in this effort.
Azzam continues his restoration work today, but it is a game of cat and mouse. The interwoven river system spans national boundaries, and dams continue to be built upstream in Iran and Turkey, resulting in water scarcity in Iraq. In 2016, Iraq’s southern marshes were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but as seen with the rapid development of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey, which displaced 70,000 people and submerged the more than 5,000-year-old city of Hasankeyf, history and international recognition often lose out to short-term economic gain. The marshes of Iraq could become collateral damage.
Azzam believes that it’s critical that the Marsh Arabs stay and advocate for the region. “Nature does not have a seat at the table; people have a seat at the table,” he noted pointedly. But it’s a challenge. The area suffered from extreme drought in 2022, complicating the wetland recovery process and forcing locals to relocate.
Regional Climate Collaboration
In addition to his job as CEO of Nature Iraq, Azzam was the personal climate advisor to former President Barham Salih. In this advisory, unelected role, he helped facilitate conversations between Middle Eastern heads of state and builds consensus on regional development projects.
Partnering with environmentalists and economists, Azzam also heads the Mesopotamian Revitalization Initiative, designed to turn threats from climate change into opportunities. Two of his primary initiatives are encouraging investments in renewable energy and negotiating transnational water resource management. Renewable energy, he believes, has the potential to return Iraq to its roots as the “breadbasket” of the Middle East. As for water? One of Azzam’s greatest hopes is a tri-national agreement on the management of the water resources of Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.
Ahead of COP27 this November, Azzam echoed a call by other Prize winners: He expressed his wish that the wealthy world, responsible for the overwhelming majority of global carbon emissions, help other countries adapt to the climate crisis. Unfortunately, citing the war in Ukraine and pandemic-induced inflation, he is not optimistic.
Iraq has been named the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change.
Water in the Middle East
Speaking with Azzam is as enjoyable as it is profound. Our conversation flowed smoothly from science and economic opportunities to poetic descriptions of his lived experiences in Iraq.
As highlighted by Azzam’s restoration work in Iraq’s marshes, a central message throughout our conversation was the role of nature in shaping Iraq’s long history. “The connection between the north and south of Iraq is intrinsic, it’s natural, and it proceeds humanity,” Azzam shared. “Don’t talk to me about Shia, Sunni, Turkmen—what unites this land is the connection between the water and the mountains.”
Winding through the arid landscape, the Tigris and Euphrates are historic threads, running through time, building civilizations, and crafting culture. It’s a long history that could be cut short by destroying the region’s lifeblood: water.
“The real weapon of mass destruction is the elimination of water,” Azzam concluded. Whether water can be used as instrument of peace and collaboration remains to be seen, but Azzam is determined to try.
Learn more about Azzam’s work with Nature Iraq on its website.
This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?
About the author
Digital Communications Manager
Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.