The miracle of the Iraqi marshlands
Meet Azzam Alwash, the man who left a life of luxuries behind in the US to return to his native Iraq and restore the country’s historically significant wetlands to their former glory.
It might upset Brexiters, but the fact is that civilisation as we know it was probably born in Iraq. Yes, “the ape” came down from the trees in Africa, but it’s here, in the Garden of Eden of the Mesopotamian marshlands, that “the ape” learned to write, farm and build cities.
6,000 years later, the water was drained out of the marshes by Saddam Hussein, and Eden was reduced to desert and rubbles. Since then, thanks to restoration efforts, the marshlands have bounced back to life.
A miracle that was recognised last July when UNESCO awarded the “cradle of humankind” the status of World Heritage Site.
A miracle that, like many successes, has many fathers. But one true mastermind: Azzam Alwash (photo on left).
He will hate you if you call him that (or simply cover you with one of his long, irresistible laughs), but the truth is that he’s not a “Monuments Man”, he’s a conservation superhero.
This is (part of) his story.
You landed in Iraq in June 2003, two months after the second Iraqi war. Was it dangerous?
Southern Iraq was safe by then. The area of the marshes, however, was a conflict zone in the Iraq-Iran war in the eighties, so the place had plenty of unexploded ordnances and mines. These can be dangerous, especially in flat terrains, or when covered with water, and represented a constant hazard. We were lucky, and careful, enough not to suffer any injuries, but there are documented cases of people losing limbs. The closer you got to the Iranian border, the worse it got. There it was best to ignore the landscape and keep your eyes on the ground.
Did you get funding to clean up?
No, also because I believe de-mining is difficult, expensive and not always an efficient option. Had Iraq been a rich country I could understand the investment, but in these conditions, it’s futile to spend money for de-mining remote areas. Plus, the truth is that, at times, mines have helped nature. In the northern part of Iraq, in the Kurdish mountains, the presence of mines has discouraged hunters.
This has changed the natural geography of the place: the vegetation has changed, goats and wild boars have returned in numbers, and with the prey you get the predator, such as the Persian leopard. The mines have recreated an habitat that was probably there before humans appeared in the area. It’s a sad lesson that conservationists learn: take out the humans and nature thrives [laughs].
We cannot say that! We advocate for a “healthy coexistence of people and nature”.
Of course [still laughing]... for sustainable development. Seriously, spending money that you don’t have is futile. We must create, rather, peace parks and clear just the paths that allow you to enjoy the area and nature.
Any other security issues?
Things got worse from 2004 onwards, when all sorts of armed factions and militias came out. Before ISIS there was Al-Qaeda and in those years people would get kidnapped all the time. When I sent personnel in other areas of the country, such as central Iraq, we needed gunmen to drive along. At one point when I was sending out people for bird monitoring it was more guards than personnel in the convoy.
I still keep this photo from 2006 of one biologist guarded by 17 gunmen, in an area between the Tigris and the Euphrates, controlled by Al-Qaeda. Despite my precautions, I still had five young Iraqi members of staff abducted in 2005.
How did that resolve itself?
They wanted half a million dollars each. When I told their outraged families that I was not paying, they threatened me: “These are human lives… how can you?” I knew that, had I paid, I would have been next. And the project would be over.
Tough call: five lives vs a conservation project?
I played bluff poker frankly, but I was not in the dark: by the second day we knew who was behind it. We couldn’t do anything about it, but we knew. They were bandits, common criminals that take advantage of the lack of law enforcement and at the time Italy had just paid 5 million dollars to free one journalist. However, I made my call and refused.
The families ended up paying 500 dollars each, and one week later the kids were free. I compensated the families later on, of course. From that experience we learnt a trick – hire local tribesman as guards. End to your problems.
Can you tell us about any other difficulties?
Near the borders you spend countless hours at checkpoints trying to explain that you, with your binoculars and camouflage clothes, are just a team of scientists. So we resolved to having a government official always part of the team.
Were there other NGOs in Iraq in 2003?
And today? The big international ones such as WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth?
No. Nature Iraq (BirdLife Partner) is the only entity that is permanently on the ground since 2003.
And today, is ISIS an ongoing concern?
No, my biggest concern now is the Mosul Dam.
It’s the most dangerous dam in the world. It’s unstable and it could collapse. If the dam goes, Mosul goes under 20 metres of water in three hours, leaving no time to evacuate anybody. And Baghdad will be under five metres of water within four days. And the provision of water, food and electricity for 10 million displaced people will be a challenge.
It’s a nightmarish scenario that keeps me awake at night. ISIS took the dam for 10 days in 2014. What if it happens again – how big a bomb, a crack, can an unstable three kilometre long dam withstand before it collapses?
When did you return to Iraq?
I landed on June 18 2003, 25 years after leaving. When I left before, Saddam was the darling of the world. I came back for the restoration of the marshes, a mythical place of my childhood. I thought I had to advocate for it initially, but it wasn’t necessary – when I got here the restoration had somewhat started already.
The locals were breaching, where possible, the walls and canals, letting water back into the marshes. In some areas there was a bit of life coming back already. Nature is truly amazing, it recovers quickly: you let water in, the fishes come with the water, and the people start to come back to fish. Locals were restoring the marshes not for biodiversity, but because they’re a way of life, a source of income.
Within six months, reeds (which we try to eliminate in the West) proved just how robust they are and started growing again. And by December 2003, we had created a breach of the Euphrates and restored 3,000 square km of marshland.
You had quite a cozy life in the US. Why leave?
Yes, I was an environmental and geotechnical consultant, an American success story: big house, good job, white picket fence… but the truth is, I hated my job. I was living for the weekend. In Iraq, I am engaged in an endeavour where I cannot wait to wake up in the morning. For the first time in my life I feel I am doing good for others and not just for me.
What was going through your mind when you boarded that plane, 13 years ago?
Uncertainty, trepidation, anxiety. I thought, ”I am crazy, leaving a job, my wife and two kids, to go into the unknown.” Fears were kept in check only by the fact that initially I thought I was only going to be here for a year or two. Not 13. Had I known back then, I would not have left.
What happened in Iraq?
I discovered something: I love my job. The first two years I focused on the marshes, learning from nature what worked, why some areas were thriving and some less. We discovered, for example, that flow-through, which prevents stagnation and eutrophication, is more important that the water level. And I became painfully aware of the water scarcity, due to the dams built in Turkey.
I realised we needed plans for the coexistence of the marshes with agriculture, and that we needed the marshes to be a national priority for the government. So we moved from science into lobbying, and created a network of people that could make our case with policymakers. And then we looked outside Iraq, for like-minded people, and international organisations like BirdLife.
And the “mission” grew over time: from the marshes to the Tigris and Euphrates, the mountains of Kurdistan, the desert of the west. When I started they looked at me like a fool who wanted to waste water. Today there are one million heroes claiming this success… it’s fantastic. But the greatest success is that the Iraqi government now leads on this work.
And the marshes have become a symbol of the rise of Iraq from its ashes; there is even talk of having the marshes on a banknote.
What happened to your family?
They never came here, but joined me in Jordan in 2006. Unfortunately my wife and kids did not like living in the Middle East. The schools were not great, so they went back to the US. My wife, later, asked me to choose. And I did. Sadly we divorced.
There must have been dark nights when you’ve asked yourself “was it worth it”?
Many, and the answer changed over time. During the divorce the pain was such that it really didn’t seem worth it. Today I have recovered. I believe that revisiting decisions is a silly game. The Buddhists say: “If you have regrets you live in the past; if you have anxiety you live in the future; be happy and live in the moment.” I live it now.
Do you feel you’ve sacrificed your life for the good of nature?
Bull**it! [laughs]. We don’t do it for the environment, there is something selfish in all this. It is about passion, your own passion. At the centre of this choice there is our own enjoyment. I have caused pain to my family, to my children, I missed graduation, the proms, their teenage-hood. It’s their loss and my loss. That is the price paid for my own satisfaction. Are we great? No way. We are selfish people.
What is the future of Nature Iraq?
We need protected areas. In the past 13 years we have surveyed and collected data in more than 500 sites, from which we have selected 80 that are unique from a biological or geographical point of view. Out of these we have selected 10 that are about to be destroyed by developments in the oil sector or housing, or infrastructures. All these data will be in a new publication. We need to advocate for these areas.