TN58 Dr Azzam Alwash, Nature Iraq


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.



Show Notes

Attempt to save Iraq’s marshes from the desert:

Nature Iraq

Nature Iraq is an Iraqi non-governmental organization registered in Iraq, accredited to the United Nations Environment Programme  (UNEP) and Iraq’s first and only Affiliate to Birdlife International.

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 (

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.



Click here to subscribe to Talking Naturally on iTunes. It’s free!



Would you like to connect with our audience?
Talking Naturally is growing all the time. If you or your organisation would like to sponsor a podcast package and reach around 350,000 wildlife enthusiasts per month, why not drop Digital Spring an email.


Did you like this? Share it:

About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores


  1. Tristan Reid says:

    Hi Charlie,

    What an fantastic energy Dr Azzam Alwash has for conservation of the Iraqi Marshes. He is certainly an inspirational guy. I love his ideas of a holistic approach to conservation in the middle-east; this is an idea that we only seem to be just catching onto in the west.
    Whilst I understand the cautious approach when dealing with bordering countries such as Turkey; I do feel that more needs to be done to halt the massive HePP & Dams currently in development in Turkey. For me the idea of compromise in this situation is not enough. This podcast opens up the worrying fact of the damage to vitally important habitats not only within Turkey but also in Syria, Iraq, Iran; to name a few.

    The Turkish Government really should look to Iraq and the work of Dr Azzam Alwash to see that conservation of both wildlife and ‘rural communities’ can go hand in hand and that they are as vital to the health of a country as financial gain.

    Tristan Reid

  2. Charlie Moores says:

    Hi there Tris
    I thought that this interview would be of interest to you given your own fantastic efforts to raise funds and to raise awareness of what’s happening in Turkey (as you probably felt it was a little inappropriate to include a link – it wasn’t incidentally, I support your efforts 100% and a link is well-merited so I’ll do it for you
    I have to confess at the time I was a little surprised (dare I even say a touch disappointed) by Dr Alwash’s acceptance of what is happening in Turkey, but on reflection I think that was far more to do with certain impractical attitudes I hold as a commentator and peripheral player that conservation is all about battling to save everything (because we’ve already lost enough) – which in the real world of leading a small conservation organisation like Nature Iraq in a battered country of divided peoples, where the real possibility of war flaring up again is present, is just not realistic. Perhaps in that same real world battles like tackling Turkey’s reckless attempt to harness its entire water supply can only be fought from within Turkey or from well away from it?
    I have to confess I don’t really know, and one of the bonuses of getting the opportunity to talk with people like Dr Alwash is the way that my long-held (but usually unscientific or idealistic) views on conservation are challenged and developed so often. In fact I can honestly say that after virtually every interview I’ve done for Talking Naturally I’ve come away with plenty to think about and re-assess.
    As regards Turkey I admire Dr Alwash’s pragmatism to work with the authorities there, and I admire your passion to fight them – I genuinely have no idea which view will win out (hopefully biodiversity will not suffer too badly either way), but I honestly feel privileged to have spoken to both of you (and to other regional conservationists like Engin Yilmaz and Richard Porter of course).

  3. Marcel says:

    This gives hope.
    Hope after death, destruction, degeneration and all evil inflicted upon Irak by the Americans.If wildlife will cared for, the people will be happy.

  4. Charlie says:

    Hi Marcel. While I agree with what you say to an extent (and the war was undoubtedly wrong on many levels), it was SH who drained the marshes, attempted to wipe out the Ma’dan, and destroyed the local biodiversity not the Americans, British, or French. Just saying…

  5. Richard Porter says:

    Great broadcast Azzam – and let’s hope Nature Iraq becomes a full BirdLIfe Partner soon. Azzam will be a guest at the the ground-breaking exhibition, Ghost of Gone Birds, which highlights the growing extinction crisis and promotes The BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme. This is being held in Shoreditch, at the Rochelle School, London E2, from 2 – 23 November.

  6. Laurie Allan says:

    Have’nt listened to it yet but saw the BBC documentary so i know it will be full of energy and enthusiasm! A place i have dreamed about when, as a teenager, i went to a series of lectures one of which was by a youthful Mr R Porter who wove a series of indelible images of wetlands full of migratory birds in the Middle East – if health and funds permit, i will visit before shuffling off this mortal coil.

    This interview is a good coup Charlie keep up the excellent work!

  7. Charlie says:

    Richard – thanks for commenting and thanks for letting us know that Dr Alwash (I don’t think I’m anywhere close to calling him by his first name yet!) will be at GOGB: the combination sounds absolutely terrific!

  8. Charlie says:

    Laurie, thanks as always for commenting. It was ‘Mr R Porter’ who enabled this interview – which I agree was a real coup – so any plaudits should most definitely be sent in his direction. And you are absolutely correct: the interview is full of energy and enthusiasm, as well as a great deal of fun and humour. Dr Alwash really is one of a kind!

Comments are now closed for this article.


Unless otherwise specified all text and images copyright Talking Naturally