[img_assist|nid=120810|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=153|height=182]In a dry and dusty land torn by decades of war and sanctions, one self-proclaimed “treehugger” has returned to restore a once-beautiful marshland ravaged by the regime of Saddam Hussein. 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley’s recent profile of Iraq-born U.S. engineer Azzam Alwash tells the story of the tragic ecocide and hopeful redemption that occurred in the “cradle of civilization” in Southern Iraq.
Azzam Alwash was born in Iraq, and still remembers visiting the Mesopotamian marshlands of the south with his father, who worked in the irrigation office before the family fled to the United States in the late seventies. The marshes were then the largest in the country, the third-largest marshlands in the world, encompassing an area the size of Massachusetts; they were a true national treasure. Beyond their ecological significance, the marshes’ location in the “cradle of civilization” between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers led many biblical scholars to identify them as the original Eden; they are also thought to have inspired ancient Sumerian myths about a divinely-inspired flood and the man who built an ark to rescue humans and animals from it, two-by-two (sound familiar?). For centuries they remained practically untouched and inhabited only by the Ma’dan people, an indigenous population living in the traditional, sustainable style of their ancestors for thousands of years unmolested. That is, until 1991, when they were targeted for systematic destruction by the Hussein regime.
When U.S. and coalition forces entered Iraq in 1991, President Bush called on Iraqis to rise against the regime as insurgents against Saddam. The call was answered by many, including the Ma’dan, who could attack and then retreat to the marshes, staying hidden in the complex waterways and dense reeds. But then coalition forces left the country, and within weeks the unprotected marshes came under attack.
Saddam and cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, better-known as “Chemical Ali,” designed a series of engineering projects and military attacks on the marshes that has since been called “the biggest engineered environmental disaster of the century” by the UNEP. They constructed massive canals, at some points wider than the Euphrates River, to divert and drain the water from the marshes into the Persian Gulf. They poisoned the waterways to kill the reeds and animals the Ma’dan depended on for food and shelter. They burned the remaining foliage, and trampled Ma’dan settlements with tanks, killing thousands and displacing some hundred thousand more. By the time they were done over three thousand square miles had been drained and turned to desert, some ninety percent of the entire marshlands.
Though happy with his life and family and America, Azzam Alwash could not sit idly by as his childhood memories were fast becoming desiccated, dusty remains. “Money and success and the American dream is not everything,” he states. “Working on passion, on something that drives you, is everything.” So in 2003 he left with his wife, Dr. Suzie Alwash, to found an environmental non-profit in Iraq called the Eden Again Project, which later became Nature Iraq, with the goal of restoring the desert that was once Eden.
Their efforts began when Alwash knocked a giant hole in the side of one of the diversion canals, sending water rushing back into its old familiar channels. Since then Nature Iraq has continued its efforts and enjoined the support of Iraqi ministries, scientific communities, Italian restoration experts, and concerned Iraqi citizens to form the New Eden Project. Thus far they have successfully re-flooded about thirty percent of the original marshes, and have seen the return of some eighty thousand displaced Ma’dan.
But Alwash is far from finished. Sadly, persistent droughts, upstream dams, and recent oil interests in the area make it unlikely that the marshes will ever be completely restored; but Alwash and his fellow activists still have high hopes. Currently, they’re lobbying Parliament to designate the wetlands as Iraq’s first national park, turning the ecological disaster into a landmark victory for environmentalism and Iraqi unity. They also have plans for a “green village” project to improve the quality of life for the Ma’dan with services like potable water, sanitation, health care, and access to transportation, electricity, and communication services, while preserving the traditional, sustainable lifestyle of the Ma’dan at the same time.
How does Alwash stay so hopeful? “The war is not going to last forever,” he tells Pelley. “If you’re going to dream, dream big. It’s free.” And by all indications, Alwash’s dreams, big as they may be, are coming true. So if the impossible dream of reclaiming Eden from a desert wasteland can be achieved, perhaps we should all start to ask ourselves, and our leaders: What other impossible dreams can we achieve?