The Quest to Save the Garden of Eden

An Iraqi emigre living in California returned home in an attempt to repair an ancient marshland that had been devastated by Saddam Hussein.

(All photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize)

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.

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"The civil engineer in me couldn't believe you could drain an area that large," Alwash said. "It looked like every piece of equipment available in Iraq had been used to excavate six rivers."

The marshes were just one of the landmarks obliterated by the Hussein regime. Along with devastating human losses, Hussein's rule was marked by the wanton destruction of towns, relics, and natural resources that were treasured by his enemies. Following an assassination attempt in 1982, he bulldozed thousands of acres of orchards and palm groves in the town of Dujail. M ore than 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed in his genocidal campaign against the Kurds in 1988.

But Alwash thought he personally could do something to restore the marshes. In 2001, he journeyed back to Iraq and convinced many of the Marsh Arabs to assist him in recovering the area. They began digging breaches through embankments in the Euphrates, with Alwash masterminding a plan to re-flood the region from local waterways. With the help of (mostly Italian) donors, he brought in an enormous backhoe to dig 20-foot trenches.

Over time, it became clear to Alwash that this would not be, as he had anticipated, "a two to three year project." The effort took a personal toll.

"I ended up staying in Iraq and seeing my kids only a few times a year," he said. "My wife and I divorced, but at least we have great kids who understand this crazy father of theirs. It took a decade and is still ongoing."

Slowly but surely, the marshes are returning. Alwash said that he's recently sighted otters, warblers, and soft-shelled turtles in the swamp. A 2010 study by Iraqi and Canadian scientists found that some, but not all, of the plant species had re-appeared. Today, the population near the marshes has increased more than tenfold.

Last week, Alwash received the Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activists.

Azzam Alwash. (All photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize)

But he isn't finished yet. While working on the project, Alwash realized that Iraqis continue to use the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as open sewers. The war-torn nation's entire water ecosystem is under threat, he said.

"My project has increased in mission to the environment of Iraq in general," he said. But he remains hopeful: "The biggest lesson I have learned is that nature is smarter and stronger than we give her credit for."