Azzam Alwash has received the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work to reflood the marshes fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and bring back the Marsh Arabs. It's one of six $150,000 awards that go to grass-roots environmental activists each year.
In 2003, this civil engineer and Iraqi immigrant living in Orange County moved back to Iraq to launch his ambitious environmental engineering project. Some say the marshes, an ecosystem twice the size of the Everglades, are the "historical" Garden of Eden. But during his 30-year reign in Iraq, Saddam Hussein transformed the marshland into a battleground. To punish political enemies, Hussein built canals with names such as Mother of Battles to drain water from marshlands and sap the lifeblood of the Marsh Arabs, a community of indigenous Iraqis who depended on the swamp to survive.
As a professional engineer, Alwash admits to having been in awe at what Saddam's men had done. "To drain 6,000 sq km of wetlands is an incredible engineering feet. It was an immense job. They had dug new rivers, intercepted the Tigris and rerouted the Euphrates away from the marsh. They had set fire to the reedbeds … It was sold by the regime as making more land available for agriculture when in fact he was trying to deprive his opposition of a base of operations. 70,000 refugees went to Iran, 30,000 to the US. The rest were displaced."
Alwash set up Nature Iraq as an NGO to focus on the restoration of the marshes and he offered his technical skills to tear down the giant embankments to flood the land. To gain the support of officials and sponsors, Alwash said he couched his argument in terms of the intrinsic value of services the marshlands could provide.
"This is environment in the service of humanity," Alwash said. "The marshes are an engine of economy."
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