Writer: Nadine Khalil
Dr. Azzam Alwash is restoring Iraq's southern wetlands, one reed at a time.
If you look at a geopolitical map of the Middle East today, you will see dots everywhere indicating upheaval and change. Perhaps as a result, what is often neglected in media coverage of the region - though it is no less important - is the series of ecological disasters that have also befallen us over the years. Think about the state of air pollution in Cairo (which is 20 times more than the acceptable level according to the WHO) or a recent European Commission-funded study showing that Lebanon only disposes 30 per cent of its waste - not to mention the level of toxicity of its waters and unregulated quarrying. You can think of it as a form of ecological terrorism. But if you ask civil engineer and environmental activist, Dr. Azzam Alwash, what the overarching concern is for the region as a whole, if not the world, he will say it is the lack of water. The truth is, the Middle East is running dry.
“He who controls water in the future will be king,” Alwash says. “Water will be the future currency as it becomes more and more scarce. Even food is a form of virtual water, tomatoes are 90 per cent water and wheat is about 60 per cent, for instance.” The drainage of aquifers is currently threatening former water wonderlands, like Jordan’s Azraq Oasis, with desertification. Then there are the marshlands of southern Iraq, which Alwash has devoted the last 15 years to help protect, particularly through his NGO, Nature Iraq.
He did not become such a staunch environmentalist by chance. Alwash grew up around the Marsh Arabs in Nassiriya on the fringes of the wetlands where many of today’s endangered bird species were once endemic. “My father was a hydraulic engineer and would go to check the irrigation structures in preparation for each year’s flood,” he reminisces. “Going to the marshes was one of the few times I had him all to myself, so I had to love them, the way the flocks of migrating birds would blacken the sky and how marvellous it was when the reeds tower over you the way they did.”
In 1978, Alwash found himself confronting a difficult decision. As an engineering student at Basra University in 1978, he had to become a member of the student union to get into graduate school. “This was the first step to becoming a Ba’ath party member,” he says, “I left for the U.S. to get my degree from there. I had no place in Iraq to go back to. I became a full-fledged American citizen, married and had two girls.”
But after the downfall of Saddam, he moved back. The former president had threatened and indeed had succeeded in draining the marshes, in an attempt to quell opposition during the First Gulf War, claiming that ‘rebels’ were using it as a hideout. “It’s such a dense area, that really only the natives could navigate it,” Alwash adds. The draining of the marshes was one of the greatest environmental tragedies of the past century. “It was not an easy feat to accomplish and I thought it couldn’t be done, the drying of several thousands of kilometres. But Saddam did it by burning the reed forests,” Alwash laments. “I call it environicide. And now this means that agriculture will die a small death in the place where it was first born.”
Hoping the damage could be undone, he dedicated himself to restoring as much as possible of what had been lost by diverting water from the Tigris and Euphrates. Though he calls himself “beggar-in-chief”, as he struggles for support and to convince the Iraqi government to help his project instead of spending budgets on F16’s, Alwash says that about 65 per cent of the wetlands were on their way back to health in 2008. Now it’s down to about 48 per cent as a result of Iran building a new embarkment along the border, severing the marshes from the Al Karkha.
Natural habitats do not observe enemy lines and a bigger part of the problem now is that to be successful, the restoration effort needs to bring in Turkey, Iran and Syria, countries that have their own dams on the very rivers needed to fully restore the marshes. So Alwash finds himself trying to convince not only his own government, but foreign governments as well. But everyone needs water and water is in ever-shorter supply.
“Using floodwater as irrigation was fine 10,000 years ago, but it’s not anymore. Aquifers are not sustainable either as forms of irrigation,” Alwash explains. “We could do things more efficiently, like harvest rainwater through local projects, as with microdams instead.” This, he believes, would ensure enough water both for people and for the marshes. An idealist at heart, Alwash clings to the vision of a future where as he says, “waters cross borders and birds have no passports.”
Ambitious, maybe even unlikely, Nature Iraq’s achievements so far do offer the glimmer of hope that the future will once again be wet.