Braving Iraq

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.

  • Elena T. Mavromatis

    When does the show air? I never knew Iraq could look like this. Thank you.

  • Chris D.

    Nature in Iraq. Now that’s something. It gives one hope.

    60 Minutes did something on tis too a while back.

  • Mike

    Interesting! I hope that everyone’s Sunday and Halloween were great and I hope that they have a great week!

  • parviz

    this is wonderful to save and vivid that lands
    i am a Persian from south of Iran
    can you Please tell me where is Arabian Gulf is? and when it existed?
    why do you change the name of Persian Gulf in your Articles
    there was not ,is not ,and will not be such a fake name for our Persian Gulf
    please correct yourself ( see the maps )
    or we might thought you got some money from rich Arab Shaikhs to use a FAKE Name
    Persian Gulf is where that all those water finally end in
    and hope one day see that Place become as it was for thousands of year

  • Anna

    This issue of whether to call it the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf always gets people riled up. Remember what Juliet said:

    “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet.”

    I suggest you do a little search on wikipedia if you want to hear the whole tired story on what this area is called … essentially Arabs, particularly Iraqis, perfer to call the area the Arabian Gulf and people working in Arab countries get a similar lecture to Parviz’s if they use the term “Persian Gulf.” I myself, who work in the Middle East have sometimes written it the “Persian/Arabian Gulf” … this is done in a similar vein to what may be the more politically correct term “Isreal/Palestine.”

    Personally, I find these debates all rather silly … far more pressing are the many problems of the Gulf including the environmental devastations of wars, oil and industrial development, municipal pollution, and overfishing that this body of water (call it what you will) has faced. This rose doesn’t smell so sweet. I suggest we focus more on that.

  • Christopher C. Cooke

    Despite man’s inestimable destructive greed for control over principalities and powers on this Earth, Heaven must be restored in all its fertile plain, including here among the confluence with the Tigris and Euphrates of ancient Crescent magnificent marshlands.

  • Christopher C. Cooke

    I hate to say inveterate greed brought all this on, but it is that human warped sense of power over earthly things that leads to so often to conflict, is it not? It brings to mind the curse of those who seek control over ” the principalities and powers of this world” rather than the miraculous sensitbiilties of nature. Which brings glory, and what destructive ends?

  • anne

    I lived in Iraq for years. Thank you for showing Iraq’s wonderful complex wetlands that are indicative of the country itself. We need to know more about Iraq’s contributions to our world. “Nature” is a great beginning.

  • parviz

    thanks For correcting the mistake regarding the Persian Gulf
    i always admire your job and recommend your news and website to others
    as matter of fact this evening i was talking to a person regarding this program
    thanks again.
    ( i am going to donate a little bit money to the PBS soon)
    long live with Iran ,Iraq and all nations and people who wants to live in peace together
    thanks again
    Parviz and friends

  • Charlotte P. Gosselink

    It is thrilling to see restoration of the Iraqi marshes. We last visited the area in 1964, and our family picnic and time spent there was idyllic.

  • Jesus

    As i saw this film i was surprised to see that there is a concern on how they provoke an ecological issue by cutting the natural water supply in a country at the other side of the world . Well i want to remark that there is a very similar poblem caused by the U.S. authorities in water questions by cutting water supply of the “rio grande” along the El Paso-Juarez area, large green area as well as the local fauna have disappeared in the Juarez Valley area in Mexico because of this “water embargo”

  • Esol Esek

    Only a human would think that his own name means anything to land that is owned by no human. I got a better name for it, the Ottoman Gulf, or the Roman Gulf, or Alexander’s Gulf, or the Humanoid Gulf, or Hot Gulf.
    You’re nothing but a human, and nature is bigger than you or your silly notions of pride fueled by delusions of grandeur. The Gulf is Iranian on one side, and Arab on the other. What does Persia have to do with it, and clearly, persians, or Iranians do not border all of it. Unbelieveable. Can’t wait for an asteroid to show everyone on this planet who’s really boss, the natural universe of which Earth is but a pretty, but miniscule side project.

  • parviz

    to Esol Esek
    i think you should refer to the history than your own opinon
    every place has a name in the world ,you can not just choice a name by yourself
    and that Area is Persian Gulf ,so what is the reason that People like you like to change the name.
    you are talkign about Human?
    but do not want to belive this Historical fact
    how do you divid a Name between those samll contires and Iran because they are Arab?
    all that area is Persian Gulf and there are lots of Gulf in the world with the Specific Name
    but why Pople like you just insist to use this Fake Name?
    there must be something Politically behind this
    lot of new countries were created in that area? can we deny them now? Not at all
    so that area has been Persian Gulf for thousands of years by that name
    even before there was a country by the name of Iraq?
    with respect to all arabs .I think you are an fanatic Arab who does not want to believ this Historically fact which even is endorsed in the UN and all countires
    for all iranian that name is very important ,and i am Glad that webisters has corrected themselve
    but i am happy that that area is getting back to its normal situation .that is very important
    and i am greatful for this website to correct the mistake

  • Shahid Raki

    I wish that Americans could truly have a conscious about what has been done in Iraq by Americans. There are still many of us who still think that they have done something to us prior to our invasion into their country,. rather than admit we were completely wrong about anything they supposedly were trying to do to us. They had turmoil before the invasion but, not to the extent that it escalated to after March 2003. Saddam Hussein did so much to his own people it is hard to fathom what he could do to other people from other parts of the world. America is obligated to help them to try and rebuild their country. America has to be more willing to stand back and observe more of what is going on in the rest of the world and not be so quick to jump in take sides or interfere. When we have taken sides in fights between 2 countries, we have often taken the side of a later aggressor against us. We may not be able to offer as much monetary assistance as may be needed to try and get their marshlands restored to previous standards but, we can certainly lend a hand in helping to get things started and headed in a direction of restoration. Water is the lifeblood of everyone on this earth. No one can survive without it. This would be one really good effort that is needed to help the indigenous people of that area to try and reestablish some of what was lost.

  • payman

    I agree with Parviz,
    You just do not selectively change name of historical places. For the people who live in that area and have thousands of years of history, it matters. It is clear that people who instigating this want to create tension among neighbors. If you are interested to know more this short clip in youtube explains the history of the name of the Persian gulf.

  • Majd I.

    Thanks for changing the name of the Gulf to the geographically and historically correct name, “Persian Gulf”. This really shows your integrity. I have a paying public television member and I am glad that you have acted wisely in this regard.

    Is there a way to correct this error in the program itself as well? I know many people who told me about it who have been offended by this mistake in the program.


  • aRudeMan

    @ Esol Esek

    I think we should change your name to Rock, or Water Buffalo . . . or maybe Bob . . . Ya . . . Bob. I have never met you . . . but I think you look like a Bob. So I am just going to change your name just because I am a disrespectful person and it pleases me.

    Names have meaning and significance. If we just make up multiple random names for the same person/place/thing then we not only disrespect the historical aspect of such names . . . we fail to communicate properly.

  • Raza

    hi all
    i have 2 comments
    1- first the program is wonderful and really amazing to watch
    .we appreciate you all in this website and program
    2- i am an Half Arab and Half Persian ( i see myself a persian ,iranian).
    we, bravely defended south of Iran during 80s when Saddam attacked us, and invaded our cities
    ,it did not matter who we were ,we all were Iranian (or Persians as you said)
    we have some values about our nation, which we together stay shoulder to shoulder for that
    .it does not matter who comes to power Name of Iran is very important for us.
    I think, only a few small new countries trying to sue a Fake Name for The Persian Gulf.and pay millions of dollars to reach their goals.
    first, thanks for webmaster who correct their mistake,then to Parviz who realized about this mistake
    I Personally Admire and webmaster.
    thery are very brave to correct themselves.
    not all medias pay attention to what you tell them
    i several times sent e mails to the Reuters and AP about their mistakes when they use A fake name for Persian Gulf,but they never responded or correct themselves
    sometimes in the west ,money is more important than fact .
    thanks and a huge hug for PBS.
    please donate to the PBS.

  • Farnaz

    I was watching this program last night and I heard a wrong name was used for Persian Gulf. I was SURPRISED to hear that from a very educational channel!
    The name of the body of the water in South West of Iran has always been Persian Gulf for thousands of years and it’s disrespectful to the history to just decide to change it. It also creates confusion and animosity among people.

    Thank you for your consideration to change the name to the the proper name in your text. Is there a way to change it in the video?
    Farnaz, BFA

  • Arian

    Persian gulf !

  • kevin

    To Anna and those that thrive on ignorance. The incorrect use of a name is false information. Why don’t we call Scotland, England. Try it over there and find out what will happen. Why don’t we call Anna an idiot, what’s in a name, EVERYTHING. To you this is just an issue, because you are there to fill your pocket. You care about neither. That does not make the matter irrelevant. It makes you a self centered uneducated individual. We suggest you go back to your country and solve your own problems. All the problems you just mentioned was caused by your invading tribe’s men. What is tired out is this condencending attitute of white people of how above everything they are. For your information Wikipedia is just a free source of online information. Read proper sources before commenting.

  • Farshad

    I have no idea why you changed Persian Gulf to Arabian Gulf!!!!!!!!! Arabian Gulf has never been existed…. It has always been Persian Gulf….Please correct it….

  • Hadi

    its Persian Gulf

  • Hessam

    It’s Persian Gulf sonn. Never make that mistake again x-(

  • Sheereen

    It’s Persian Gulf, not Arabian Gulf!! Thank you for correcting the name in the above text. Please correct it also in the video as this may cause confusion.


  • Farshad

    It’s Persian Gulf
    Please correct your article

  • Pirooz

    Persian Gulf will always remain Persian Gulf. You better delete the idea of changing Persian Gulf out of your minds.

  • hamed

    Just Persian Gulf, as you and all the world know about it.

  • Armin


  • mitra

    no body can change the real name of subjects.Persian Golf has been recognized with this name in ancient books & maps.changing this name & struggling about that isnt loyal. hope this mistake be correct as soon as possible.

  • Alireza Tabatabaeenejad

    I would like to express my deep concern about the use of the term “Arabian Gulf” to refer to the Persian Gulf in your program. This term is historically incorrect, politically charged, and ethnically divisive. The correctness of the term “Persian Gulf” is indisputable. The Persian Gulf has been known and recognized as such for more than 2,500 years, and official legal judgments from the United Nations have codified its use internationally.

  • Sam Sabzevari

    for god’s sake,

  • Matin

    With respect to all non-Iranian people living around the ”Persian Gulf ” , we are all here to not to let the money which is raised by the crude oil and etc in the Persian Gulf be used against it .
    We are all here to save cyruses land and people and develop them towards his goals .

  • david bogaisky

    thanks for a great program -
    I appreciated having a more expansive view of that world – My understanding of the marsh arabs and their world – is via the writings of wilfred thessiger; and hhis book the marsh arabs – and their world as it was before the arrival of the great shaytan sadaam hussein -
    I was in iraq 17 days last year – via hinterland travel – led by geoff hahn of brighouse, u.k. and did visit an encampment below nasariyah -our escort would not take us where geoff wished – due to “ali baba” – but I did note men in their wooden pirogues – casting their nets – egrets perches in the reeds seeking their prey – women baking bread – and had some – water buffalo – and heaps of their dung for cooking etc. – (buffalo chips in us)
    the concern of the those who approached us was to have us intercede on their behalf to have access to clean water – they assumed we had some clout which was not the case.
    In our case; our group was small – three – one police escrort – and a ministry of tourism persona – at times an armed vehicle would precede us – speckled in blue spots as a holstein cow – we saw much armament – but happily all remained peaceful except for reports of nearby bombing –
    we were met cordially everywhere – asallam alaykum – shlonak etc.

  • Milo

    ok people i think we got the point of Gulf name. can you please stick to the subject, because you guys ruin the whole concept of this whole program. instead of writing or giving feed back about this program, you guys argue about the name of the gulf. this is not a forum!

    first of all, i would like to thanks the people who made this possible and who risked their life to do to the impossible regardless of situation in iraq. Big thanks to Asam for working hard to bring life to marshes, for people and animals. this was a great program, even thought im iraqi, i didnt know there were many bird species in south iraq. im so glad theres beautiful nature full of birds in south iraq. this is one step toward hope and change. Thanks PBS

  • Nathan

    This was a wonderful, inspiring episode. It is so wonderful to see how well and how quickly the marshes and the Ma’dan are healing and thriving together. And all we had to do was just add water! Gives you a lot of hope!

  • kasra

    PERSIAN GULF!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Becca

    What wonderful people are involved in these noble efforts to restore this literally breathtaking area! I SO hope all their good deeds come to fruition for the local people and the lovely wildlife. Yes, something so positive in our too often upsetting negative world helps us ALL. Kudos and heartfelt thanks.

  • Emran

    please don’t mistake. It is persian Gulf in All the time.

  • Justin

    I’m a big turtle nut and heard that there is a species of softshell turtle ( Rafetus, I believe ) that lives in Iraq. I wonder if the marshes are part of its natural habitat ?

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  • Carrol Babineaux

    There are proper ways, and of course bad ways to perform investigations, ty for the info:)

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    Just wanted to say aweseome theme and great post.I like how you wright. Ever thought about freelance writing?

  • Tim N.

    This was an incredible insite to the good that is still in Iraq. I was sationed at Contingency Operating Base Basrah 2009-2010. It was a surpising place considering much of it was taken. It was all seemingly desert but if you did look close enough you could for sure tell it was once quite fertile. It makes me feel good that this land is being brought back to the way it truly should be.

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  • Rynn Toifel

    I am watching your program now. I live in Alabama along the Gulf coast and we have marshes like this area in Iraq. I have never imagined that it could go away. To the gentleman born in Iraq and who now lives in California, you are AWESOME. I hope your family appreciates what you are doing even though you have to miss their special occasions. Good luck to you in the future. I will keep you and your mission in my prayers.

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  • Kori Foxman

    Awesome write-up Chrissy! Thanks for sharing your day.

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    Why are so many of the comments on this article completely off topic? You’d probably believe everyone has Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or something, hahah.

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  • Willis Limle

    Thanks Bob! I enjoyed the post on Pawn Stars

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  • jared

    I hate hearing about the war and iraq. It is very sad about the lives that we lost and also the countless amount of money that was wasted on the war. You can never put a cost on someone elses life.

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  • Ali D

    There is no Arabian Gulf. “Persian Gulf” is the only official and internationally recognized name for that body of water according to the United Nations.

  • Mikemputer

    Saw it today on PBS’s Nature and had to look up Marbled Teal ( a bird ) and was again impressed by NATURE (the show :) )

  • Tess Adama

    How exciting. I will be watching.

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