Iraqi-American Seeks To Restore 'Garden Of Eden'

Biblical scholars believe that the wetlands in southern Iraq are the site of the Garden of Eden. In the 1990s Saddam Hussein drained the area by diverting its waters in order to punish the people living in the region for backing an uprising against his regime. Nearly two decades later, engineer Azzam, an Iraqi-American and founder of Nature Iraq, returned to the region to help restore this land — in the middle of a war. Host Michel Martin speaks with Alwash about the project.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

If you try to imagine the Iraqi landscape, you will probably envision a war-torn region or think of, perhaps, desert or even mountainous terrain. But deep in Southern Iraq, the country's two mighty rivers - the Tigris and the Euphrates - divide into hundreds of channels before flowing into the Persian Gulf and creating a wetland larger than the Florida Everglades. Until 20 years ago, it was an aquatic oasis that biblical scholars believed to be the site of the Garden of Eden. It was, of course, drained and destroyed by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after the people who were living there - the so-called Marsh Arabs or the Madan people - joined in an uprising against him in 1991. Officially, the land was to be reclaimed for agriculture.

Azzam Alwash visited the marshlands often as a child with his father, who worked in Iraq's Water Ministry. Azzam Alwash has lived in the United States, though, for the past three decades, where he trained as civil engineer, but he returned to Iraq in 2003 to launch a project to restore the marshlands. As he recently returned to the U.S. on a trip, he stopped by to tell us how the project is going.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. AZZAM ALWASH (Director, Nature Iraq): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So could you describe what the marshes were like when you were a child?

Dr. ALWASH: You know, of course, these are memories from very warm times when I was with my dad in these marshes. And he used to take me there on the excuse that he was checking flood control structures just before the flood season, which is the spring, which happens to be the season for migration of birds. And there would be thousands of birds, and he was an avid duck hunter. So we usually put in a single boat, and we'd be puttering around in these small streams surrounded by reeds. And these reeds, to my mind's eye, were as tall as the sky. They covered the boat.

And every now and then, we'd go into these wide-open lakes, where the water extends to the horizon. And when we disturb birds at a distance and when my dad shoots, the sky almost turns black with the number of birds that come up. And every now and then, we'd land into these villages that are comprised of islands, people middle of nowhere, living in huts made out of reeds. Words cannot describe it. Only pictures can.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for trying, though. So tell me about what the marshes looked like when they were drained. And I think many people will remember that as punishment for supporting the uprising against Saddam in 1991, that the marshes were drained. How was this accomplished? And what did it look like when this happened?

Dr. ALWASH: Goodness. You know, from the engineering point of view, it was an incredible project. Every piece of equipment that was available in Iraq at a time when Iraq was not allowed to sell a single drop of oil - this is '92 through '95 - was used in the construction of six major rivers. And these rivers essentially intercepted the water of the Tigris and Euphrates that used to go into the marshes, and basically directs the water into the desert and away into the Gulf, and essentially, depriving the marshes of their source of life.

An environmental - or United Nations environmental program called the project the worst-engineered environmental disaster of the last century. Besides the six major rivers, over 5,000 kilometers of embankments were built along the tributaries and the main channels of the Tigris and Euphrates, basically to increase their capacity to hold water. And the civil engineer in me sits and admires the incredible job the engineers did. I mean, for eternity, the kings and rulers of Iraq had tried to drain the marshes and nobody could, yet Saddam did.

MARTIN: And what happened to the topography there? What did it become?

Dr. ALWASH: A water world turned into a desert. Seeing it from satellite pictures, it was an incredible disaster. The green, lush fields turned into brown deserts. In fact, the engineers or the army did not wait for the marsh to die a natural death. As soon as the water was cut off, they put fire to the region, preceded to flush the rebels out.

Be that as it may, in watching the satellite pictures, it's nothing, nothing compared to seeing it firsthand. I had the opportunity to go in June 2003 after liberation of Iraq, and I prepared myself mentally for the disaster that I was about to see, but it's nothing close. Driving through these marshes and looking at the desert that has replaced it was just a physical blow. You know, I did not think that nature can bring back herself from such an incredible disaster.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm discussing the restoration of Iraq's marshlands with environmentalist Azzam Alwash. He's the director of Nature Iraq.

Why does it matter that these areas be restored? And I do want you to tell us about how the project is going. As I understand it, about a third of the marshes have been restored already. But why do you think it matters that this occur?

Dr. ALWASH: Well, when you consider that the marshes of Southern Iraq are essentially the cradle of civilization. The Sumerian culture began in the shores of these marshes. Organized agricultural began around the edges of these marshes, when the grasslands became rice fields and grain fields. These marshes don't just belong to Iraq. These marshes belong to the rest of the world.

From the environmental point of view, the biodiversity of this place is an incredible thing to behold. The marshes are teaming with life in the spring. They are a major rest point for migratory birds. These marshes are actually flood-retention basins. They get created as a result of the mountain snows melting in the spring in the headwaters of Tigris and Euphrates, and they come down and see this desert. So essentially, what happens is that this water comes in and basically floods the sides of the Tigris and Euphrates and creates this water world.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you noted that in 2001, the United Nations characterized the destruction of the marshes as one of the world's greatest environmental disasters. So the question really does arise: Can this be reversed?

Dr. ALWASH: Nature is a wonderful force. All we can do is help her recover. Look, before even I went back to Iraq, before June 2003, people were claiming that the restoration of the marshes was not possible. And I thought that going back to Iraq, I was going to have to fight and convince people to restore the marshes. Turns out, by the way, that as soon as I got to the marshes, the marshes restoration process has already started by the people of the marshes who basically brought loaders and shovels and dug holes through the embankments and returned water. And only thing you need to do is to introduce water, and nature will recover. And I'm in awe. I mean, every time I go back to the marshes and I see what nature does, it's incredible to watch and behold.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ALWASH: Don't let anybody fool you. Azzam Alwash did not restore the marshes. The people of the marshes restored the marshes. I only acted as an advisor in areas that were not doing well, that were flooded and the water became stagnant, I come up with the engineering solutions to allow the water to come - flow back out.

MARTIN: So give us a status report.

Dr. ALWASH: At this point in time, the marshes are about 35 percent restored. Now, they were about 65 percent restored in 2008. The last two years were essentially drought years, and the amount of water that came in was a lot less, so we lost a lot of the areas that was flooded. But what we have to remember is that this is not the first time this marshes saw drought. And so it just - it's part of nature. It's part of the natural process that the areas around the perimeters of the marshes become wet and dry over the seasons. We just have to work with nature and facilitate the bringing of as much water as possible.

And, you know, the problem right now in Iraq, between Iraq and Turkey, is the fact that Turkey is building a lot of dams upstream to generate hydroelectric power to irrigate fields. And so we have solutions. We're working with the Iraqi government. We're talking to Turkish organizations about creating solutions for the long-term future. Our models indicate that we can restore up to 75 percent of the marshes even using only Iraq's limited water resources.

I'm glad to report to you that the Ministry of Water Resources of Iraq has bought into our plan, and, in fact, is building all the regulators that we have designed. And by March 2011, all the systems will be in place. What remains is the political world to dedicate enough water to restore as much of the marshes as we can.

MARTIN: Do you think that this will be, in your lifetime, a place you can take your two daughters to visit?

Dr. ALWASH: That's my dream. I mean, when do I consider my job done is when I take a kayak from the borders of Turkey and land in Dubai's(ph) two weeks later. It is my dream to share this place with my daughters and my granddaughters. There would be nothing better than frolicking around the marshes with my two girls.

MARTIN: Azzam Alwash is the director of Nature Iraq. He was kind enough to stop by our studios at NPR West to give us an update on his efforts there to restore these amazing wetlands. So thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. ALWASH: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share this magical place with your listeners.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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