Engineer Azzam Alwash is intent on restoring the fabled Mesopotamian marshes in southern Iraq that Saddam Hussein tried to wreck
Some say the marshes of southern Iraq are the origin of the Garden of Eden story. Why did Saddam Hussein drain them?
He said it was to make dry land for agriculture. He dug canals and diverted the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, causing 90 per cent of the marshes to dry out. But really, he saw the Marsh Arabs who lived there, fishing, cutting reeds and tending water buffalo, as opponents. He couldn’t send in heavy tanks to flush them out. Drains worked better.
But drains aren’t the only threat?
No. Turkey has been building dams upstream on the two rivers for irrigation and hydroelectricity. The next, the Ilisu dam, will be finished next year. Less water comes to the marshes now, and the timing of the flow is different.
Do you still think you can save the marshes?
Yes. When I was a boy I lived in the city of Nasiriyah right on the edge of the marsh. Ten years ago, as I watched TV pictures of US troops crossing the dried-up marshes to depose Saddam, I recalled how I had gone duck hunting there with my father, who was a government water engineer. So I left California and dedicated my life to bringing them back. But it is not just me. The Marsh Arabs also returned and tore down Saddam’s works.
Advertisement: Replay AdHow are you going about your task?
Nature Iraq, the NGO I founded, has done biological surveys and drawn up a master plan. On our advice, the government is constructing new banks and canals to keep parts of the marshes wet all year round and help sustain the local economy. Last winter, 76 per cent of the marshes were flooded. We hope the government will very soon turn the marshes into a national park.
So is it a managed marsh now?
It always has been. The Marsh Arabs have been burning the reeds annually for thousands of years, otherwise the waterways would choke and the marsh would dry up. Now, we are managing the water. Without a strong spring pulse of water down the rivers the biology will change.
Is life changing on the marshes?
Very much. Marsh Arabs used to live isolated lives out among the reed beds. It was primitive and romantic. Today they mostly live in towns on the banks. They have cellphones and satellite dishes. They damage the fisheries with electric fishing. They shoot the birds. We see garbage floating in the marshes. They have to live, but our task will be to help them use the resources more sustainably.
How will you do that?
We hope tourists will provide another source of income, and an incentive to protect the marshes.
Oil is an issue. Will you try to ban drilling there?
No. I would prefer to work with the oil companies if they will be careful how they work. And they too may provide money for the park.
Might you end up destroying the uniqueness of the marshes in order to save them?
I don’t think so. If they were the Garden of Eden, then we continue to manage them like a garden.