Iraq's Eden: Reviving the Legendary Marshes

Afshin Molavi
for National Geographic News
May 1, 2003

Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi exile living in California, remembers the breathtaking beauty of Iraq's southern marshlands that he visited as a boy. He remembers the smiling hospitality of the Marsh Arab people, the quiet waterways where he floated on wooden boats, the beautiful cathedral- like homes constructed of reeds, and the swarms of colorful birds in the skies above.

He promised his wife that they would one day visit the lush, biologically diverse, and historically rich region that lies between the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Today, there's not much to visit. In 1991, shortly after the first Persian Gulf war ended, Saddam Hussein's government, angered by Marsh Arab participation in the southern uprising against his rule, launched an assault on the southern wetlands and the nearly 300,000 Marsh Arabs, known as Ma'adan, who call the region home. The assault included burning villages, summary executions and "disappearances," and a multi-year, sophisticated campaign of water diversion and marsh drainage that has reduced roughly 93 percent of the marshes to dry, salt-encrusted wasteland.

Extensive damming by Turkey and Syria beginning in the 1950s in the upper Tigris-Euphrates river basin also negatively impacted the marshlands, but the majority of the destruction of the teeming Iraqi wetlands that are larger than Florida's Everglades began with Saddam Hussein's campaign.

Human Rights Watch called the campaign "a crime against humanity." Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, president of an aid organization devoted to helping Iraq's Marsh Arabs, called it "the deliberate extinction of one of the oldest races in the world."

In response to the horrific evidence of what he calls "the destructive sophistication" wielded by Hussein's engineers, Alwash, a civil engineer who earned his doctorate from the University of Southern California, and his wife Suzie, a geology professor at El Camino College, decided to do something about it.

They began searching for any data they could find on river flows, previous wetland reclamations, the specifics of Saddam Hussein's drainage methods, even poring over dusty dissertations in the libraries at the University of California, Los Angeles. They also picked the brain of Alwash's father, an Iraqi irrigation engineer, who immigrated to the United States after the first Persian Gulf war.

In 2002, they formed the Eden Again project, assembling a cast of international scientists, engineers, anthropologists, and hydrologists to develop a plan to restore the marshes.

The group is "not seeking to do the restoration ourselves," said Suzie Alwash. "This must be done by the people of the region. We hope that our group can provide some scientific support and a forum for stakeholder discussions. It is critical that all stakeholders, especially the Marsh Arabs themselves, are intimately involved."

The group issued its preliminary report April 29 in Washington, D.C.

Garden of Eden

The Mesopotamian Marshlands are an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Some Biblical scholars believe the region to be the site on which ancient stories of the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood are based. Up until a dozen years ago, the Ma'adan led a life characterized by fishing, farming, weaving, hunting, and grazing water buffalo, a life not entirely unrecognizable to their Babylonian and Sumerian ancestors 5,000 years ago.

Continued on Next Page >>


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