Almost Gone...But Not Forgotten: An Iraqi Kayaker
Remembers His Homeland As A Paddler's Paradise
Interview with Kayakers Dr. Azzam & Dr. Suzie Alwash
April 12, 2003 by Athena Holtey (Progress Report at above link)
Soon after the Iran/Iraq war, it was discovered that Saddam Hussein drained the marshes lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. This was to gain military access to hunt down escaping refugees and greater political control of its 500,000 native Marsh Dwellers known as the "Ma'dan" who have lived there for thousands of years as part of a self-sufficient ecosystem. Only satellite imagery revealed the devastation: Today, only about 5 percent of the marshes remain. (see below: More Than An Iraqi Problem)
A privileged site (photo, left): Iraq's fertile marshland in 1975; then home to 500,000 Marsh Arabs: These were the water trails Azzam Alwash skirted through as he tagged along with his father, Jawad, an irrigation engineer who worked for decades in the southern marshes, monitoring hydrological works and settling water disputes along the two rivers. "He would take me with him as he traveled about to meet with the farmers in the years from 1962 through 1969," Azzam explained.
"I remember my father being graciously received in the town of Chubaish, a collection of small islands build up of earth and reeds, similar to Venice." This is also the memory that was stirred up in the Iraqi immigrant from Nasiriyah when he began kayaking with his own family in Southern California. "I'll take you kayaking there someday," he told his Texas born wife, Suzie and girls, ten-year old Hannah and Norah, eight. But that would prove to be difficult.
"Azzam's interest in kayaking is what led him to reawaken his feelings for the marshlands and appreciate the disaster that has occurred there." related his wife Dr. Suzie Alwash, a Professor of Geology at El Camino College in Torrance, California. "I fell in love with him, then in love with the marshes, although I've never been there."
Azzam fled Iraq in 1979, at the age of twenty to escape the pressures of Saddam's regime to join the dictator's Ba'th party in order to continue his academics. He finished his engineering degree at Cal State Fullerton, his doctorate at U.S.C. where he met Suzie. He says he doesn't know of any of his engineering colleagues in Basra who survived the Iran-Iraq war.
in Southern California, all my memories of southern Iraq reawakened,"
Azzam said. "Together we pored over the beautiful photographs in
Gavin Young's book Return to the Marshes. I have very vivid memories
of the marshes from puttering around in early summer in a boat with
my father. I recall the vast waters threading through the reed beds."
(Photo: Azzam, Norah, and Hannah at Lake Lopez, California)
On a family vacation the Alwash couple were in London in 1994 where there happened to be a presentation at the British parliament by the foreign minister showing what Saddam was doing at that point in time to dry up the marshes. "The bells were ringing," Azzam said. "The pictures even then were devastating."
Then... "In August 2001," relates Suzie, "we saw the satellite images of the marshlands turned to desert, and the first thing we said was 'guess we can't kayak through the dust.' So...we launched a major international initiative to restore the marshlands. Initially, the two of us worked alone."
Azzam commented: "You saw on TV the place where the Military Maintenance crew lost it's way and were taken captive? Those five POW's? The TV showed the place...sand and dust blowing around everywhere? That was right in the middle of the Marsh!"
Saddam had barred environmental researchers and humanitarian relief workers from the area after 1991 and pre-drainage information about the Marshes could not be obtained. Azzam's parents were now living in the U.S. and he enlightened his father to the devastation suffered by the Marshes.
Jawad grew up in southern Iraq, studied civil engineering in Alexandria, Egypt, retiring to Baghdad in 1983. They were visiting the U.S. when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and never returned. He sketched maps for his son and daughter-in-law, recalling how dams and regulators had been designed to nudge the flow in one direction or another over the flat terrain. He called former colleagues living in exile in California to fill in the blanks.
All this in an effort to help come up with a plan to restore the marshes to their pristine state.
Iraq Map - left:
Blue represents standing water in 1992
Red represents standing water in 1993
Bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian Marshlands once covered 3,500 square miles in southern Iraq and Iran.
"From the satellite photos we saw in London, we learned that 60 percent of the marshes were drained between 1990-1994. We began knocking on doors locally and trying to raise awareness among environmental groups of the devastation in Iraq. Our pleas were somewhat lost. It's about this time I became more active in Iraqi organizations which advocate for the Iraqi people," Azzam said.
Azzam is now a member of the board of directors of The Iraq Foundation, which supports a project to rejuvenate the marshes. This "Restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands Project," also called "Eden Again," is bringing together American and international experts on wetlands restoration. Made up of a group of experts like Azzam and Suzie Alwash, it has already used existing data and new computer modeling efforts to develop alternative scenarios for the marshes' eventual restoration. It was hopeful only as a remotely run operation until the war.
"Part of the technical advisory panel includes scientists from Iran and Kuwait and they are included in all our debates and get copies of reports on data we have. We recognize fully well that this is not just an Iraq project," explained Azzam. (see below: More Than An Iraqi Problem)
He has excitedly received confirmation that the USAID (The United States Agency for International Development) is making their project one of the priorities of the agency's postwar reconstruction efforts for Iraq. But could it really be done?
Now that Saddam's regime has fallen Suzie and Azzam are already looking foreword to an exploratory fact finding trip in June. "Our project is not to do the restoration - it needs to be done by the people of the region," said Suzie. However, when war with Iraq appeared on the horizon, Azzam had the opportunity to advise Pentagon officials to not just avoid bombing dams, but to drop leaflets across southern Iraq urging people not to take things into their own hands.
Premature, misdirected flooding of the now delicate ecosystem could wash the salt deposits and other damaging components into the soil. Azzam also pointed out the dangers of Saddam using the dams as a defense to hamper the progress of our troops...and they did; but the U.S. military cut the effort short by taking immediate control of the dams, preventing this disaster. Azzam does not know if the leaflets happened, but did speak on two Iraqi opposition radio stations, prior to the war, urging the Iraqi people in this vain.
Unfortunately, experts believe that by this time only a partial restoration of the marshes is still possible. They believe that much of this unique ecosystem, and the beautiful, historic culture of the Ma'dan is irretrievably gone.
"There are some reports that up to 100,000 Marsh Dwellers are refugees in Iran," says Azzam. "Another 100,000 are spread all over the world, political refugees from 1991 ...What I am afraid of is that the skills they mastered to live in the marsh environment will be lost with the new generations. These are not simple skills, to care for the wildlife and build from the native materials."
Alwash is hopeful, however. "I have been waiting for the liberation of Iraq for 25 years. I am elated... yet I think I should be more elated. I seem to feel an emptiness inside perhaps because of the loss of troops that died to free Iraq and all the Iraqi people that have lost their lives. Perhaps it is a since of responsibility weighing in me...the hard work now just beginning. I don't think the time is too late. We hope to open an office in Baghdad soon...restoring the marshes is definitely within the realm of possibilities."
Meanwhile, waiting for the restoration project of the Mesopotamian Marshlands to begin, they regularly kayak in Newport Bay, and Los Alamitos Bay "...just across the street from us," as well as San Diego Bay, the Colorado River, and other smaller lakes within California.
"We are calm-water paddlers; and don't have a club, just our family," says Suzie. Although last year they took their first whitewater rafting trip. The girls are ready to do it again. They paddle a Dagger tandem and a single that's been taken over by daughter Hannah..and soon Norah, who are both kayak enthusiasts.
More Than An Iraqi Problem
In an article by Vicki Silverman of the U.S. Department of State, Azzam shed significant light on the politics of Saddam's strategies to drain the Marsh. She writes: "Saddam Hussein's regime promoted old prejudices before draining the wetlands. In April 1991, the Ba'th party newspaper al-Thawra carried six long articles attacking the Marsh Dwellers for their alleged backwardness and immorality, describing them as a 'monkey-faced' people who are not 'real Iraqis.'
When asked why Saddam destroyed the marshes, Alwash explained that Iraqi military documents captured in 1991 revealed that as early as 1987, Saddam Hussein ordered the construction of a network of canals to end the flow of water and dry the marshes in order to pursue Iraqi soldiers who were fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. Alwash said it was preposterous to believe, as the regime has claimed, that the massive drainage program was designed to create more agricultural land to counter sanctions after 1991.
'Only the outer edges of the marshlands could ever be farmed and, in fact, this is where Marsh Dwellers were already growing rice. The rest of the soil is too salty to support food crops,' he said.
Alwash noted that the marshlands are fed through a delicate balance of runoff waters from Iraq's central plain, as well as the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers which have been diverted by a massive system of canals and dams.
'It is true that the water of the Tigris entering Iraq has been reduced by a major system of dams nearer its source in southern Turkey. But even in 1990 there was enough water that the marshes were viable and vibrant. Saddam's program has three features. The Glory River (Nahar al-Aaz), a shallow canal two kilometers wide, was built in 1993 to intercept the water that comes from the Tigris. Bypassing the marshes, it dumps the water into the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. There is another system to capture the runoff from the agricultural land of Iraq's central plains. This water would have gone into the marshes, but now carries the water by an underground siphon system below the Euphrates and into a canal called Saddam's River (some sources call it the Third River) which eventually directs the water to the Gulf. The third diversion canal, known as the Mother of Battles River, is designed solely to take water from the Euphrates thus depriving the marshes of the water needed to keep the marsh ecosystem alive,' Alwash said.
-Researched, Compiled & Written by Athena Holtey, April 2003.
READ THE LATEST ON THE PROGRESS OF EDEN AGAIN...NOW KNOWN AS NATURE IRAQ - An NGO registered in Iraq with a sister affiliation to the Iraq Foundation. Nature Iraq will take on the responsibility for fulfilling the mission of the Eden Again Project and other environmental projects of the Iraq Foundation. "With the return of water, the people have come back...have rebuilt their villages with reed huts and exquisite mudthifs...our avian survey noted over 40 species of birds, many of them in a breeding state. The Iraq Babbler, an endemic species, was observed, but not the Basrah Reed Warbler. The noise of frogs can be deafening..."
Rsource Links & Books:
Iraq Foundation - Watch YouTube movie: Marsh Arabs - Iraq August 2007
Books by Gavin Young. This intrepid reporter died in Jan. 2001 and these historical titles are out of print:Return to the Marshes : Life with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq by Gavin Young
Iraq, Land of Two Rivers
by Emma Nicholson and Peter Clark, Hardcover, 332 Pages; ISBN 1842750429 Sept 2002 - A book exploring the plight caused by Saddam's deliberate draining of the fertile marshland between the Tigris and the river Euphrates after the Iran/Iraq War in order to gain military access to the Marshes and greater political control of the 500,000 Marsh Arabs who have lived there for thousands of years as a self-sufficient culture.
With satellite imagery, before & after shots, it exposes the dwindling
of its entire ecosystem and the flight of tens of thousands of refugees.
Based on the research of an international team of 18 writers from 7
countries, all experts in their field.
"There is no doubt that the disappearance of the Mesopotamian marshlands represents a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity's worst engineered disasters. It is a devastating account embodying in many respects the environmental crises of our times. This disaster encompasses disputes over water rights; pollution; threats to indigenous communities and to archaeological sites; human rights, environmental refugees and war damages; and declining populations of migratory birds and coastal fisheries.
It is hoped that this report will act as a clarion call, sparking fresh
debate and opening new lines of communication between Tigris-Euphrates
riparian countries, encouraging them to come together and share their
precious rivers in a peaceful, socially-equitable and environmentally-sustainable
We appreciate the use of the above photos and information provided by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and DEWA (Division of Early Warning and Assessment)~Europe/GRID-Geneva. UNEP first drew the world's attention to the demise of the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East Mesopotamian marshlands in May 2001 with hard evidence from satellite imagery capturing the shrinkage of the marshland's physical extent. The UNEP study revealed that by spring 2000, a one thousand-square kilometre vestige straddling the Iran-Iraq border was all that was left of the extensive wetland complex, which originally covered an area of 15,000 - 20,000 square kilometres.
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