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Iraqi 'Environmental Hero' Has Insights for California Water

Azzam Alwash in an Iraqi mosque built entirely of marsh reeds | Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

What Azzam Alwash misses the most is hot water. Also gasoline on demand and tap water he can drink without wondering what's lurking inside. "You don't know what 24/7 electricity means until you miss it," he says. In 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Alwash gave up a comfortable life in Los Angeles to return to his native Iraq, a place devastated by war and only just beginning to emerge into post-Hussein recovery. His plan was to restore the salt marshes in the south, an ecosystem intentionally destroyed by Hussein in an effort to stymie his opposition.

Alwash came to the US twenty-five years earlier as Hussein was rising to power. Halfway through an engineering degree in Baghdad, he was informed that if he didn't join the ruling Ba'ath party, he wouldn't be awarded his degree. Once safely in the US, Alwash finished his studies, eventually married, and became a partner in a civil engineering firm. He left all that behind for the wetlands he'd loved as a child.

But he wasn't always an environmentalist by profession. "I was helping developers rape virgin lands and turn them into nice little tract homes. This is literally how I made my money," he told me on a beautiful November afternoon. Despite that, his love for the natural world is palpable, whether talking about US National Parks in the American West, or about his work with the group Nature Iraq protecting and restoring Iraq's wetlands. That work, and his frequent visits to US National Parks, would lead him to found Iraq's first and only national park.

Surrounded by desert at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, a spot some people believe was once home to the biblical Garden of Eden, Alwash believes that the marshes belong to all of humanity, not to Iraq. It's the literal origin of human civilization, the place where agriculture was developed, written language invented, cities first organized, and the wheel first thought up. But for Alwash, it's the place where he came to know his father.

Marsh Arabs poling a traditional mashoof in the marshes of southern Iraq. | Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineer


"I have very warm memories of these marshes," he recalls. "My dad was an irrigation engineer, and so every spring before the floods came, he [went] out to inspect flood control structures - but in fact what he was doing was hunting ducks." His father's work kept him busy, so one of the few opportunities Alwash had for father-son bonding was in his dad's boat, cruising around the marshes.

Warm and affable, Alwash suddenly leans forward and speaks more quietly, almost whispering. That's when his true passion -- water -- becomes visible in his eyes. The marshes, he explains, are fed not by rainfall but by melting snow. And while they drain to the gulf at a constant speed, they get a boost of inflow in the spring as the winter's snow begins to melt, resulting in an annual flood.

It's no wonder that's where farming began. "As it turns out, farming has continuously stayed in Iraq for 8,000 years without collapse because of these floods." he tells me.
They wash away the salt that accumulates all year as the water from the last year's flood evaporates, while leaving behind a new layer of silt and clay. "The Sumerian farmer did not need fertilizer, he had natural fertilization."

The marshes have been in their present location for 15,000 years and the wildlife there has come to expect and rely on the annual flood. The waters rush in just as the reeds emerge from their dormant phase, just as the birds are migrating through, just as the fish begin to spawn. "These species have adapted and basically thrive because of it. And so they continue to thrive as long as the system is constant," says Alwash. "And then everything changed," thanks to Hussein.

Here's a 2013 profile, courtesy the Goldman Environmental Prize, describing the work Alwash did that earned him that year's Goldman Prize for Asia:

For Californians, some of this story should sound familiar. Sure, Alwash has a unique set of challenges doing conservation work in a de facto war zone, but some challenges are universal. We too have natural wetlands, though ours surround the San Francisco Bay. Our wetlands also evolved to expect an annual influx of water and like the salt marshes in Iraq, that water comes not from rainfall, but from melting snow dripping down from the Sierra Nevada.

And like Iraqis, Californians struggle over water politics. Iraq's infrastructure, like its biodiversity, evolved to expect an annual flood. Their challenge was to get rid of unneeded water, not to save every last drop. But around the time that Saddam was destroying the marshes, Turkey built dams on the rivers' headwaters to harness electricity, and the flow of water into the Tigris and Euphrates slowed.

For four decades, Turkey and Iraq have struggled over questions about who owns the water. As Alwash describes the issues, I can't help but think of water issues here in California, the unmistakable resentment for Los Angeles you feel when you walk into the Mono Lake Bookstore. "Frankly -- and this is what I tell Iraqi officials - if we continue talking about whose water this is, we're going to talk another sixty years and maybe even go fight without finding another solution," he says. "The question is without legitimate answer. The water belongs to whoever is strongest. Turkey is NATO. As long as Iraq does not want to have a fight with NATO, they better find a new solution."

I asked Alwash whether he could share any lessons for California that he's learned working on conservation and water in Iraq. "If we pay the real price of water, you'll see real conservation. We don't pay the real price of water." For him, conservation -- whether of nature or of energy -- seems to come down to economics, at least at the scale of large governments like Los Angeles, or California, or Iraq.

His research suggests that Iraq is better off investing its "limited, brackish water" in marshes than in agriculture. In other words, the ecosystem services provided by the plants and animals that depend on that water are more beneficial to Iraqi citizens than would the crops grown from seeds irrigated by that water. "Nature has a better rate of return than farming. I'm sure there's a parallel here in California," he adds.

"From Chicago to the Karoo" featuring Azzam Alwash will air on The New Environmentalists Wednesday, Nov. 25 at 8:30 p.m.

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