Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, news about the fate and future of this Middle Eastern country has been at the forefront of our national consciousness, making an impact on our daily lives, appearing in every newspaper and news program, the subject of endless numbers of personal and political discussions. But if you think you’ve heard every imaginable story about life within Iraqi borders, think again. There is at least one major element in this geopolitical drama that the American media has mostly overlooked, and it lies at the cross section of regional politics and the natural environment. NATURE’s Braving Iraq unravels this tale about what was once one of the richest and most important wetlands in the world – from its virtual destruction by a ruthless dictator to its exciting, new prospects for a miraculous recovery.
As recently as the 1980’s, Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes were reminiscent of the Garden of Eden – indeed, many biblical scholars believe they are one and the same. Fed by the combined waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, this enormous marshland of over 6,000 square miles dominated southern Iraq. For more than 7,000 years, these wetlands provided a bountiful home for both wildlife and humans. A large population of indigenous people, the Ma’dan Tribes known as Marsh Arabs, had thrived there for centuries. But in the 1990’s, due to political conflict, Saddam Hussein attempted to eradicate them – not through systematic extermination, but by destroying the marshes on which they depended for survival. Massive canals were dug, diverting river water away from the wetlands and towards the Persian Gulf. Huge embankments were built to prevent water from entering the marshes. What had been a green paradise twice the size of the Everglades shrank to less than 10% of its original size. Most of it was transformed into a parched, lifeless desert. The wildlife and the people were forced to leave.
But the story did not end there. Due to the imagination and the efforts of a coalition of individuals, restoration of the marshes has become more than a dream. Civil strife, serious security incidents and droughts make for slow progress, but various groups are chipping away at the embankments, trying to successfully flood the marshes once again. Azzam Alwash, an engineer raised on the banks of the Euphrates, left Iraq for America to escape from Saddam’s regime, but he has returned to undertake one of the largest habitat recreation projects in the world. Filmmakers David Johnson and Stephen Foote follow Azzam, chronicling his efforts to breathe new life into the green paradise he remembers from his childhood, while also navigating the inherent dangers of working in a dangerous and politically volatile region.
Is there any hope that such a massive ecosystem can be brought back to life? Have the exiled rare birds of the marsh, such as the marbled teal and the Basra reed warbler, survived? And will they return to their old territory? Success is uncertain, but some Iraqis feel that the fate of the country itself is tied to the fate of the marshes – and as small signs of hope for natural recovery begin to appear, Iraq’s political future seems to brighten as well.