“I will say that if you’re going to dream, dream big…it’s free”
A conversation with the inspirational Dr Azzam Alwash, CEO of BirdLife partner Nature Iraq, recorded at the British Birdfair 2011. Dr Alwash left Iraq in 1978 to escape the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, but returned in 2003 to help restore the huge marshes of southern Iraq formed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (and thought to be the Eden of the Bible). At maximum flooding in late spring a ‘pulse’ of meltwater from mountains in Kurdistan once covered an area of about 3,000 km2 creating one of the world’s most important wetlands, but massive drainage and diversion schemes – constructed by Saddam Hussein to punish the Marsh Arabs (or Ma’dan) for rising up against him – removed 90% of the water turning the region from a biodiverse haven supporting 2/3rds of west Asia’s wintering wildfowl into an arid wasteland of salinated earth.
Dr Alwash, a remarkably pragmatic and genial man, is devoting his life to doing what he can to bring life back to the Marshes. Bringing a mix of commonsense, practical engineering experience, and boundless energy to a project his detractors still tell him can’t succeed and which now faces new threats from hundreds of dams upstream, he is an inspirational conservationist who delights in thinking ‘outside the box’ and whose eternal optimism shines through every interview he gives.
Disclaimer: This podcast has been produced by Talking Naturally to support conservation. No fees were charged or accepted by myself or Talking Naturally for making this podcast. Bandwidth costs for this podcast are sponsored by Digital Spring.
I would like to thank Richard Porter for his support and for his help in enabling this interview to take place.
Attempt to save Iraq’s marshes from the desert:
Nature Iraq was created to protect, restore, and preserve Iraq’s natural environment and the rich cultural heritage that it nourishes. Our mission includes fulfillment of the following goals:
- Improve the capacity of Iraq’s institutions to protect its environment, including local and national governmental and non-governmental bodies, along with universities, colleges, and scientific institutes.
- Develop a scientific database of environmental conditions and trends within Iraq through environmental monitoring and research programs focusing on water resources, ecology, and biodiversity.
- Encourage environmental awareness and stewardship of Iraq’s environment by promoting community-based environmental centers and clubs, developing environmental education programs in Iraq, and maintaining global awareness of Iraq’s environment.
- Promote the sustainable use of Iraq’s environment and resources, respect and balance the traditional use of the environment by indigenous inhabitants, preserve wildlife and biodiversity, and address the economic needs of both local inhabitants and the nation.
The Iraq Marshes
From Eden Again Project (http://www.iraqfoundation.org/projects_new/edenagain/index.html)
The extensive marshlands of Mesopotamia represent a unique component of our global heritage and resources (UNEP, 2001). They play a key role in the intercontinental flyway of migratory birds, support endangered species, and sustain fisheries of the Persian Gulf. Biblical scholars regard the marshes as the site of the legendary “Garden of Eden.” Historically they nurtured the culture and civilization of the Sumerians who produced the first alphabet and the earliest epics.
The current marsh-dwellers, the Ma’dan, are our only link with this rich cultural past. Following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the Ma’dan were important elements in the uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime and the marshes offered a safe haven for the resistance. To end the rebellion and punish the freedom fighters, the regime implemented an extensive system of drainage and water diversion structures that have resulted in the almost complete desiccation of the marshes. This has resulted in (UNEP, 2001):
- destruction of a 5,000 year old cultural heritage that represents the modern world’s link to the roots of its civilization
- extinction of several endemic animal and botanical species that depended on the habitat of the marshes;
- disappearance of the way-station for migratory birds, with adverse effects potentially spanning the continents of Eurasia and Africa;
- saltwater intrusion into the Shatt al-Arab, causing disruption of fisheries in the Persian Gulf;
- higher soil salinity in the marshes and adjacent areas, depriving Iraq of much needed agricultural land
- considerable disruption to the agricultural and food supply of the whole of southern Iraq, especially in the loss of dairy products, fish, and rice cultivation;
- desertification of more than 20,000 square kilometers, and adverse indirect climatic impacts to adjacent land, and
- displacement of the Ma’dan population of over 300,000, forced to flee the marshes and become refugees in Iran or internally displaced in Iraq.
- Iraq’s ‘devastated’ Marsh Arabs, BBC News March 2003: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2807821.stm
- Nature Iraq – CBS Video (BirdLife Community website, June 2010): ttp://www.birdlife.org/community/2010/06/nature-iraq-cbs-video/
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