Braving Iraq
Finding Water for the Marshes


The task of restoring water to Iraq’s marshlands is a difficult and complicated one. First, it involves the enormous engineering aspect of breaching the embankments and canals built by Saddam in the 1990’s to destroy the unique habitat of the Ma’dan, Iraq’s Marsh Arabs. And in today’s world, the restoration must also take on the continuing impact of war, hydroelectric dams, droughts, political sanctions and treaties, a general lack of conservation policy and global warming.

Since returning to the marshlands in 2003 from his adopted home in the United States, Azzam Alwash has struggled to achieve his goal of resurrecting the historic wetlands area for the indigenous people and wildlife against all of those challenges. As the area comes slowly back to life, Marsh Arabs, who were in exile, have begun to return to the region to begin their lives there again. And many unique bird species, such as slender-billed gulls, marbled teal, and endangered Basra reed warblers, have also repopulated the area. It is a hopeful start against long odds.

Iraq is a desert country sustained by waters which flow down the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers through Turkey and Syria, and by a network of smaller rivers from Iran, some of which feed the Tigris. There are few formal regulations on water usage between these countries. Tensions surrounding water usage ignited in the 1970s when Turkey began the Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP) in order to bring power to its southeastern provinces. The GAP is still active, and Turkey now has a total of five dams on the Euphrates. Syria has also utilized the Euphrates by constructing three of its own dams.

While dams have brought electricity to Turkey and Syria, they have also restricted water flow to Iraq. This reduced water flow has exacerbated the effects of a devastating three-year drought that is still affecting the nation. Rainfall has at times been a mere 30% of the average. Turkey has largely resisted increasing the water flowing from their dams because of oil disputes with Iraq, though in 2009 they did increase water flow to Iraq, but it lasted for only 30 days.

Water not only rejuvenates the marshes but supplies necessary drinking water for the Marsh Arabs and their livestock. Before Saddam’s restrictions, dams and drought, the natural water flowing through the marshes was strong enough to flush salts and toxins through the river bed, making the water potable. Since the destruction of the marsh certain areas of water remain too stagnant and salty to drink. Marsh Arabs have also noticed that emerging plants and fish are often saltwater species. As part of local efforts to restore water flow and biodiversity, Alwash’s team has also been installing regulators to hold and release water in an attempt to duplicate the seasonal flow that once occurred naturally in the marshlands to control water salinity.

Restoring these marshes is recognized as the largest habitat recreation project in the world, and has a long way to go. But, Alwash’s efforts have directed the devastated marshland towards a return to Eden. The team plans to complete the construction of a ninth flow regulator by April of 2011 and hopes to restore enough of the area to begin efforts to make the Central Marsh into Iraq’s first national park and eco-tourism attraction. But the availability of water, as well as continued instability, are certain to remain major challenges for Alwash’s team.

  • carole

    this is awsome

  • penelope thornton

    How may I get in touch with Azzam Alwash? I wish to volunteer to help in this extraordinary and wonderful project if possible.

    So wonderful to see PBS doing this piece on Need to Know tonight – and the Marsh Arabs are a particular piece of my own history, and my love for the region.

    Pls let me know?

  • Val Rogers

    How inspiring! As someone working in ecological restoration in the US, I am motivated by Azzam’s example to continue to do all I can to contribute to a better future, despite obstacles. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. It reminds me that there are dedicated people all over the world who share a passion for helping make the earth a better habitat, for wildlife AND for people.

  • david bogaisky

    again it was great to see the marsh world more intimately – while I personally was there ;last year – it was for only 2 hours – and a small glimpse of a cluster oh homes – some water buffalo ( and appropriately piles of their dung – cow chips as we say in us – for cooking purposes ) some folks casting their nets for fish – we had a small police escrt – and it was peaceful – in fact during the 17 days in iraq – from zakho -dohuk to basra – many checkpoints – much weapons of war seen – but no meyhem – mash’allah -
    I would like to out reach to azzam – and if you could convey my internet address pray do so –

  • Norma Allen

    Such a heart rending program. To see this desert come back to life was most moving. The power of nature aided by the commitment of one man and his team gives hope for all the desolute places in the world. God’s speed and blessing in their work.

  • Sharon

    What an incredible inspiring story, and man! It broke my heart to see what Suddam Hussein had done and I thank God for Azam Alwash and his devotion to this cause, along with all who are helping restore this very important marshland. God bless them all.

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