Braving Iraq
Interview: Azzam Alwash

Azzam Alwash stands at the center of an enormous project to re-establish Iraq’s unique wetlands. An Iraqi-born trained civil engineer, Azzam grew up in the town of Nasriyah, on the banks of the Euphrates. As a boy he accompanied his father, a government water engineer, on many trips into the marshes.

Azzam resettled in the U.S. well before Saddam Hussein drained the marshes, but returned to Iraq with his wife Suzie to lead the monumental effort to restore the Iraqi wetlands.

How did you first get involved with this remarkable restoration project?

My work on behalf of the marshes started in 1997/1998 in trying to put the spotlight on what Saddam did to destroy the marshes and the use of water (or lack thereof) as a weapon of mass destruction. Not many people paid attention to what my wife Suzie and I were saying at the time, and our effort consisted of me going around to scientific conventions and Iraqi opposition meetings with a presentation about the marshes and how important it is and what a crime it is that it would be drained. But after 2001, there was a blip of interest as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) produced a report documenting the drying of the marshes. UNEP stated in the report that the drying of the marshes constituted “the worst engineered environmental disaster of the last century.”

My father, who was one of the first hydraulic engineers hired at the Ministry of Water Resources, had intimate knowledge of the marshes and southern Iraq, and in fact he was the reason why I knew and experienced the marshes, as he took me with him on his rounds (hunting ducks in the process) when I was a young kid. My father gave me information and was able to get me some records as to flow quantities and how one would go about bringing water back to the marshes. So we developed a plan of how the water flow could be restored, and I began advocating with real data that the restoration is possible, and that all that is required to affect restoration was the political will to do so. I was advocating that if Iraq was going to be exempted from the Chapter 7 resolutions, the economic sanctions that the United Nations placed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, one of the conditions should be the restoration and protection of the marshes.

How did you convince locals, officials, and funders that your project was an important one and that you were the right person/organization to help see it through?

After September 11, 2001, there was a remarkable increase of interest in Iraq, but the news did not cover the marshes angle. The Department of State (DOS) called me in for a briefing, and there were skeptics in the meetings telling me that there is not enough water and that the marshes should not be restored in any case as the culture has died, and the soils were too salty, etc. I argued vehemently and convincingly that this was not the case, but I could not prove it alone as I needed experts that I had no access to (or the money to pay). Soon DOS gave me a grant to convene a panel of wetland scientists who could review our claims and report back to the skeptics whether the claims were substantiated or not.

The panel met in Irvine, California, under the auspices of the American Academy of Sciences, and it was composed of highly-respected scientists who were involved in the Florida Everglades as well as the Mississippi Delta, and the panel concluded its report with “the restoration of the marshes is not only feasible, but warranted.”

The report was published in March ‘03, when Iraq was invaded to remove Saddam. The sudden introduction of a new item to cover engulfed us with news coverage, which brought later interest from the Italian government which was involved in Nassriya. I was asked to come to Rome to brief officials, and the rest is history.

As I stated above, there were skeptics claiming that the Marsh Arabs did not want to return to the marshes. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to Iraq to find out that the restoration had already been started by the locals who breached dikes and stopped regulators and drainage pumps. I began using my knowledge as an engineer to “advise” them as to where to make new breaks and paid for hiring excavators to help in the breaching of large dikes. A the same time, I was making the rounds in Baghdad and internationally raising awareness about the marshes. Italy, Canada, and US were engaged with us from the first days (middle of ‘03), and given the continued success, the funding continued. My challenge was to come up with ideas that would help in making it possible for people to come back and for nature to be restored. The strength that we have is that we always come up with ideas and new ways to interest agencies in the importance of the marshes and designing projects fit for specific requirements of funders.

What are some of the bigger engineering challenges you’ve had to address while helping the marsh residents restore the land?

That question requires pages to answer. I will simplify by saying that the most difficult project/idea that we came up with is how to divert water from the Tigris and Euphrates to restore as much of the marshes as possible in an era of climate change and increasingly limited sources of fresh water. The answers are presented in our Master Plan for Water Resources Management in Souther Iraq (, in which we determined that we can restore 75% of the marshes with as little as 12 billion cubic meters (as opposed to the historic 50 billion cubic meters when the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates were not regulated.

How has the work on the flow regulators been progressing since the recent elections?

The last of the regulators should be finished in April of next year.

The plan for a national park sounds ambitious in a land that needs to be restored, supports local human populations, and faces security challenges. How has this idea been embraced by the government and the local people now that the election is over?

Some of the most ardent supporters of Nature Iraq are the minister and top echelons of the Ministry of Environment of Iraq. We work very closely with them and we are allies, which is strange in the Western experience as NGOs typically have an adversarial relation with government.

Aside from the huge task of marsh restoration, what are some of Nature Iraq’s other environmental goals?

We are now working on creating a series of protected areas all over Iraq and working with the Kurdistan Regional Government as well as local government on the idea of Eco Tourism.

We are also working on reviewing the environmental laws of Iraq and advising on how to modify/amend to comply with international treaties and international standards (or modify to fit Iraqi conditions).

  • david bogaisky

    Mr. Alwash:

    I appreciate your efforts as per restoration of the world and habitat of the marsh arabs – al-arab al surrur – whom I have read much of ; particularly through the writings of wildred thessiger ; of u.k. (now deceased)- who lived with them- his book the “marsh arabs’-
    Last year; during mid october, 2010; I was fortunate to have spent 17 days in iraq – with a small group via hinterland travel – ( geoff hahn; of yorkshire, u.k. ) we entered via zakho – dohuk – al-sulimanuiye (visited halabja) – erbil – baghdad – kerbala – nejaf – samawa – and below nassariyah; stopped only briefly in a small settlement of the marsh arabs – our escort would not take us into ceertain parts of the area for fear of “ali baba’ .; however I had the pleasure of seeing water buffalo in their wet world ( and the cow chips used for cooking ) of a women making bread – which I had and tasted quite nice – of posing with a man sirhan outside a small mudhib – I would be pleased to make a conation towarads your revival efforts -
    david bogaisky –

  • david bogaisky

    Mr. alwash:
    as a ps. – while in nasariyah – a reporter joined our party – wathiq al aboudy – of the jaridah – al-shubbak al -nasariyah -
    I am e mailing him this article -
    david bogaisky

  • James

    Just watched the Nature show. Amazing work. However, one major mistake by those who wrote the narrative script (probably lack of knowledge of the region) The mentioned the waters flow to the Arabian Gulf. There is no such a thing! I think you meant the Persian Gulf. There is an Arabian Sea but that’s the other side of peninsula :)

  • Yvonne Isola

    I just finished viewing the Nature show & was inspired by something positive being done.

  • Wayne Ross

    I would like to thank all involved with this project. Mr. Azzam Alwash is putting enviromental needs ahead of his family. Thank you Alwash family for supporting him and his desire to restore what he remembers as a child. I was touched when Mr. Alwash said that he could bring family members to this project and they could see why he missed birthdays, graduations, holidays, etc. I hope that this kind destruction doesn’t need to take place any more. I also liked how Mr. Alwash had no problem with the two bird hunters, saying it was for the people that the marshes were beibg restored and a way of life.

  • Pati

    Your work exemplifies Ecological Restoration as a labor of love and neccessity. Thank you for keeping the marshes in your heart and then following your heart. Respect to your father– for giving you the connection.
    May we all be less conflicted with each other and more connected to the planet. Your work shines a light down that path.

  • Darilyn

    Before watching this show I knew nothing about the area. Bless you and your family for undertaking this project. The marsh is so beautiful and you are right, people will come! I would come. How can people help?

  • Nathan

    All I can say Mr. Alwash, is that this world would be such a better place if only there were more folks like you in it. THANK YOU!!

  • Rachel

    Incredible show! Your efforts are inspiring. I watched this show with my daughter and it was a good opportunity to talk to her about what happened there. I posted the full episode to my Facebook account, hoping that more will share your story. Blessings to you and your family.

  • Dr. Maitham

    Alsalaam Alikum Mr. Azzam Alwash…
    I am a Ph.D. students in UNL studying Poisonous Plant, and I was watching the net1 channel (PBS) for Lincoln,NE.
    I just want to thank you and all the good people in your team for this great work. Now I have a copy for the report and everyone in my University asked me to watch it, and they are very interesting in the water situation in Iraq.
    We are thinking to start a study about the plant and algae in that area and may be you can help us?

    Again thank you everybody for the great work and time you spend back in Iraq and I hope you can update us with what is happening there.

    Note: For most of the country surrounding the gulf we call it Arabian Gulf, but just Iran call it Persian Gulf which is the very old name for that gulf and there is no more a Persian Empire there is IRI now. So, please everyone to update your information please. Thanks.

    Dr. Maitham

  • Marti

    Mr. Alwash,

    I hope you can read these comments. I found a book in my library after watching your show called “The Marsh Arabs” by Wilfred Thesiger. It was published in 1964. It has 110 black and white photos of all the things you were talking about in this special. I hope you can find the book, and enjoy some memories. Maybe you or your father’s pictures are in there!


  • David M. Eggleston, Ph.D, P.E.

    After reading Joshua Hammer’s article about your work to reestablish the marshes, I realized that drinking water is a problem for the Marsh Arabs. My friend, Robert Foster, a professor and director of an energy institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, has developed solar stills in his work with Rio Grande border settlements. Now he is working to help Afghan farmers purify water and make solar crop dryers. He has developed production of simple solar stills which can be used to make several gallons of distilled water from any other water in a day. Such solar stills could be a great benefit to the Marsh Arabs who need simple local sources of drinking water. He can be reached at:

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.