Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Restoring Iraq's Garden of Eden ; Marshlands Native Wins Environmental Award for Effort to Save Desert Oasis

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Restoring Iraq's Garden of Eden ; Marshlands Native Wins Environmental Award for Effort to Save Desert Oasis

Article excerpt

Iraq's marshlands are experiencing rebirth, thanks in part to Azzam Alwash, who this week received the Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activists.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Azzam Alwash says he remembers the reeds towering above his head, lining cool corridors in the Iraqi heat as he sat with his father, the district irrigation engineer, in a small boat plying the waters of the ancient wetlands between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

That was the early 1960s, and the marshlands covered as much as 20,000 square kilometers, or 7,700 square miles. "I have very warm memories of those times," Mr. Alwash, a 54-year-old, Iraqi-born, U.S.-educated civil engineer, said in an interview here last month.

Biblical scholars say this massive oasis in the desert may have been the Garden of Eden. For more than five millennia, tribal groups of Marsh Arabs lived sustainably in this water world, using the dominant plant, a giant grass called Phragmites australis, for housing, animal feed, fuel, and commerce. Under their ministrations, the marshes teemed with life, serving as one of the world's most important stopovers for migratory birds and as breeding habitat for Persian Gulf fisheries.

But in Mr. Alwash's lifetime, those waters nearly ceased to be.

Now, however, they are experiencing rebirth, thanks in part to Mr. Alwash, who this week received the Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grass-roots environmental activists.

In the 1970s upstream dam projects began to reduce water levels; and in the early 1990s Saddam Hussein ordered the construction of massive diversion canals and dams that drained more than 90 percent of the original marshlands. His motive was to retaliate against the Marsh Arabs for a Shiite uprising and to destroy rebel hideouts. After siphoning away the water, Hussein ordered the land poisoned and burned, leaving the wetlands a cracked, dusty salt pan.

According to a 2011 U.N. paper on managing change in the marshlands, some 175,000 people were forced to flee. From the United States, Mr. Alwash watched, aghast.

Mr. Alwash had left Iraq in 1978 and landed in the United States, where he ultimately earned a doctorate, got married, and had two daughters.

In response to the attack on the marshlands, Mr. Alwash and his wife Suzanne Alwash, an environmental geologist, founded the Eden Again Project in 2001, the seed for a nongovernment organization, Nature Iraq, which works to protect Iraq's environment.Mrs. Alwash has written a book about the restoration effort, "Eden Again: Hope in the Marshes of Iraq," due out in July.

Seeing opportunity in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Mr. Alwash left his family for the war zone, to see what he could do about restoring the wetlands. When he arrived, he found that some Marsh Arabs had already begun to break holes in the levies to reflood the land. He set to work to support them, leading a team of scientists to develop a master plan to restore the marshes.

Mr. Alwash has since worked through Nature Iraq teaching Iraqis and Iraqi institutions -- governments, universities, nonprofit organizations -- about environmental awareness and stewardship. That has included meetings with government officials to convince them of the environmental, social and economic benefits of restoring the marshes and the promotion of community-based environment clubs. To support this work, Nature Iraq has hired its own scientists and worked with researchers at Basra University to build a database of Iraq's environmental conditions and trends, focusing particularly on water resources, ecology and biodiversity.

Today the wetlands are in recovery. The Goldman Prize says that about half the historical area is now reflooded. Water levels fluctuate due to seasonal changes, drought and upstream water diversions but fish, birds, animals and people are returning.

A subspecies of otter,Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli, thought to be extinct, was recently sighted in the marshes. …

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