The Iraqi hydraulic engineer and environmentalist was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to restore southern Iraq’s salt marshes, once the third largest in the world, which were desecrated during the Saddam Hussein regime. Alwash’s story will come to life during the latest episode of Robert Redford’s Emmy-winning TV series, “The New Environmentalists.”
“Many of us are trying to find ways to build a more sustainable world for future generations. We’re concerned that our planet’s well-being isn’t as secure as it once seemed. But on every continent there are new environmentalists who are committed to change; whether it’s an individual, small group or grassroots organization, they’ve made personal sacrifices that most of us couldn’t even imagine,” Robert Redford told GrindTV.
“In the middle of the parched desert landscape of Iraq lies the 6,000-square-mile Mesopotamia Marshland, the largest ecosystem in the Middle East. These wetlands were once the childhood haven for Azzam Alwash. The marshlands were much more than Azzam’s respite from the desert heat; for centuries, they were the vital life source for 400,000 indigenous Sumerians.”
The newly protected marshlands, officially declared by the Iraqi Council of Ministers in 2013, “remains a concept on paper” as a full-scale national park, admits Alwash. But that doesn’t mean the adventurous can’t explore the ancient environs, a place with 250 registered archaeological sites and where 450 bird species already flock, yet hikers and boaters are just beginning to explore.
“This is a place for intrepid tourists, where no one else has gone, for people who love to camp — and can live without electricity and no Internet access for a week at a time,” says Alwash. He maintains that the rugged landscape is safe, but for added security, his nonprofit, Nature Iraq, will provide guided tours of the marshes via traditional mashouf — a canoe-like boat ironically waterproofed in tar from Iraqi oil so prevalent it once bubbled from the ground.
“Plastic kayak, if you prefer,” Alwash laughs. Visitors can also sleep in traditional mud huts.
“Iraq invokes images of war, explosions, kidnapping and mayhem, but it means a lot more to me,” Alwash says. “I see snow-capped mountains in the north and this incredible water world in the middle of barren desert in the south.”
Indeed, the Mesopotamian Marshlands are an unparalleled natural environment. Here, two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, join forces with massive snowmelt flooding from Iraq’s northern mountains, forming a natural retention basin as water is trapped trying to get to the Gulf.
The seasonal cycle means the wetlands landscape changes: Water is higher in the spring and drains throughout the year. But don’t try to come anytime during the summer. “It’s too hot,” Alwash says. “October through May is the best time to visit.”
Alwash says so far the biggest supporters of Iraq’s first national park are the people already living in the area, trying to make the iconic marshlands sustainable for the future.
“This is a source of living when the world moves away from oil. They understand ecotourism. Let’s put it this way,” laughs Alwash, “they haven’t joined Airbnb yet, but it’s something that could happen in the future.”
To learn more, tune into “The New Environmentalists: From Chicago to the Karoo,” which airs nationally Nov. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Link TV.
Read more at http://www.grindtv.com/nature/robert-redford-takes-you-inside-iraqs-first-and-only-national-park/#jjTH9E6Y7mxy8KGL.99