Engineer goes home to revive a paradise
Azzam Alwash is on a rescue mission.
His focus is the vast Iraqi marshlands, which were drained and transformed from a lush paradise, perhaps the biblical Garden of Eden, into a desert by Saddam Hussein, the long-time dictator of Iraq who was captured by American forces, tried by Iraqis and hanged.
Alwash, who is 53, was introduced to the marshes as a child when his father was a hydraulic engineer there. He fell in love with the marshes then, and now is devoting himself to restoring them. It is a huge project that inspires some comparison to the multi-billion dollar restoration in the Florida Everglades. The Everglades also suffered from a project that diverted the natural flow of water. But what motivated the damage in Iraq and the Everglades is worlds apart,literally and figuratively.
The building of canals and dikes in the Everglades was done to protect wildlife, prevent flooding of towns and cities on the edge of the Glades and to help insure that farms and ranches get needed water. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein set out to destroy the marshes, murder many and punish hundreds of thousands of people living there. Officials at the United Nations Environmental Programme who studied Saddam Hussein’s assault on the marshes concluded that it resulted in “the worst-engineered environmental disaster of the last century.”
Alwash put it this way in a telephone interview: “An entire water world disappeared. Where there was once life, there was nothing but death.”
When U.S. forces struck Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein was wielding a simple, natural weapon against the Marsh Arabs: water, Alwash said. His scheme was to divert the Marsh Arabs’ water through newly forged channels to the Persian Gulf.
When they were thriving, the marshes sprawled over 6,000 square miles, an area slightly larger than Connecticut. The marshes were a source of fresh water in an arid region. They were home to roughly 500,000 members of a civilization known as the Ma’dan or Marsh Arabs.
Scholars say there is much evidence that the Garden of Eden was set in the marshes. In good times, they were filled with birds and other small creatures. People used tall, green reeds to build houses, feed water buffalo and weave baskets and mats. They lived among the reeds and traveled by long, narrow wooden boats, poled along natural channels winding through acres of the reeds.
“I remember leaning over the side of the boat, looking into clear water and seeing fish,” Alwash said. “I remember a sense of serenity, a sense of warmth, a sense of love.”
Azzam Alwash, born in Iraq, spent most of his youth in Nassariya on the banks of the Euphrates River. At the age of 20, he fled Saddam Hussein’s regime for the United States. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering at California State University at Fullerton and got a Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering at the University of Southern California.
In 1991, the United States and allies invaded southern Iraq in effort to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. President George H. Bush encouraged Iraqis to overthrow their ruthless dictator. Many living in the marshes joined members of the Kurdish ethnic minority and other Shiite Muslims in an attempted uprising. The marshes, often referred to as a smuggler’s paradise, became a hiding place for the rebels.
After U.S.-led forces withdrew under the direction of Bush, the rebels became vulnerable, and Saddam Hussein set out to destroy their hiding place. He drained the water, burned the reeds and bulldozed homes. His engineers dug six wide canals to divert waters into the Persian Gulf. One channel was wider than the Euphrates River.
After Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a decade later, President George W. Bush, son of the first President Bush, decided to intervene. The Iraqis had refused access to United Nations inspectors trying to check reports of weapons of mass destruction.
“People were focused on finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Alwash said in the telephone interview. But, he said, “right under their noses,” Saddam Hussein was “using water as a weapon of mass destruction — against both nature and human beings.”
Working as a soil and environmental engineer in Southern California for 20 years, Alwash figured he had achieved the American dream. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, though, Alwash turned his attention to reviving the Iraqi marshlands, and has become a driving force behind a restoration project. He took a leave of absence from his consultancy work to direct project operations in Iraq. Much of the work involves breaking down dikes and ending the diversion of marsh water into the Persian Gulf. Alwash wants to transform the marshes into the world’s next eco-tourism hub and develop a Mesopotamian Mashlands National Park, displaying the vibrant nature of southern Iraq.
He recalls going into the marshes as a child of four with his father, Jawad Alwash, one of the first irrigation engineers to gain access to the marshes. “It’s impossible to forget the prevailing smell of buffalo dung throughout the marshlands,’’ laughs Alwash. During his first trip back, it was realized that to truly impact the future of the area, he would have to return to Iraq often.
Amidst the devastated marshes, Alwash saw families staging their own revival of Eden by breaking dikes that had been installed by Saddam Hussein. “Seeing the devastation on a ground level was a physical blow,’’ he said. However, the mere presence of those families meant that others shared his vision.
To preserve Iraq’s natural environment and heritage, Alwash and his wife, Dr. Suzie Alwash, an American geologist, started Nature Iraq, a non-governmental organization that is an outgrowth of the marsh restoration project. Nature Iraq, which has received funding from the United States, Italy and Canada since its inception, won the 2011 Takreem Arab Award in Qatar for environmental development and sustainment.
These days Alwash, who is a citizen of the United States and Iraq, remains director of the Iraq restoration effort, lectures on environmental issues in Iraq and sometimes kayaks the marshlands of Southern California with his wife.
Fragile security in Iraq and the austere desert climate of southern Iraq today make for slower progress. Guards from local tribe often oversee and protect the crews working to rebuild the marshes. It is estimated that 90,000 people live in the marshes now, less than one-fifth of the previous population.
Alwash knows that restoration will not happen overnight, but remains confident as he sees cranes and bulldozers fixing the marshes around him. He is not the only believer, though. The rare birds of the marshes, such as the Marble Teals and the Basra Reed Warblers, have come back; they too have found the lost paradise of the Iraqi marshlands.