Azzam Alwash has warm memories of visiting the marshes near his boyhood home in Southern Iraq. He and his father would putter around in a tiny boat, coursing through the open lakes, hunting ducks among the reeds, and listening to the croaking of the frogs.
"That region is not where you find a lot of water," he said. "But an hour away from where you're living, you find this incredible world."
This was no ordinary swamp, though -- the Mesopotamian Marshes lie near some of the earliest known literate civilizations in the world. The wetlands' plants and wildlife fed the first inhabitants of the so-called "Cradle of Civilization" and covered more than 5,800 square miles--more area than the Florida Everglades. It was, some say, the site of the Bible's "Garden of Eden."
"Along the edges of these marshes are where Sumerian irrigation was invented, it was where cities were first built. It was where the wheel was invented. It was where Abraham was born," Alwash said. "These marshes don't just belong to Iraq. It belongs to wherever Western culture exists."
So in 1994, Alwash, who had since emigrated to California and started a family, was devastated when he saw photos showing that the marshes had been drained to just 10 percent of their original size. Saddam Hussein had decided to punish the so-called "Marsh Arabs," a rebel group of about 80,000 that made their home on floating islands in the wetlands. The U.N. warned that the marshes would disappear " completely" without intervention.