01 October 2002
Saddam Hussein Has Destroyed 90 Percent of Iraq's Wetlands Heritage
(Iraqi-born engineer describes the marshes' devastation) (1470)
By Vicki Silverman
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- Saddam Hussein's destruction of the vast marshlands
lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq is
nearly complete, according to Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-born engineer and
environmental activist. Alwash said the latest commercial satellite
imagery shows less than 10 percent of Iraq's marshlands hold water
today, and what remains is a massive network of man-made canals and
parched, salty earth.
This is the legacy of the regime's engineering scheme, begun in 1991,
to drain the marsh region for military purposes, according Alwash.
International environmental experts, calling this effort "one of
humanity's worst engineered disasters," believe it is only a matter of
years before the marshlands and the unique culture of people who lived
Very few people, even Iraqis, have had the opportunity to see or study
the Iraqi marshlands, the millenniums-old ecosystem where water reeds
grew twenty feet high, and grains, grasses, fish, buffalo and
migratory birds lived in harmony with 500,000 native Marsh Dwellers.
Since 1991, the regime has barred environmental researchers and
humanitarian relief workers from the area. Nevertheless, a group of
experts at the United National Environmental Program and dedicated
individuals and non-governmental organizations have been monitoring
the condition of the Iraqi marshes, by satellite images and other
Alwash is one of the rare individuals who has experienced the
marshlands firsthand. "My father was an irrigation engineer in
southern Iraq. He would take me with him as he traveled about to meet
with the farmers in the years from 1962 through 1969," he said in an
interview with the Washington File September 26.
"I have very vivid memories of the marshes from puttering around in
early summer in a boat with my father.recollections of the vast waters
and threading through the reed beds. I remember my father being
graciously received in the town of Chubaish, which is essentially a
collection of small islands build up of earth and reeds, similar to
Venice," he recalled.
"Honestly, as a boy, I didn't appreciate these trips," Alwash
explained. "I thought of the marshes as a backward region. Remember,
I'm talking about the 1960's and early 1970's, long before the
environmental movement helped us understand the value of wetlands and
the lessons of its native cultures."
(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.')
In 1979, after two years at the civil engineering school of Basra
University, Alwash left Iraq to pursue his education in the United
States. "Saddam Hussein had been gaining power and state control was
increasing by the day. I was 20 years old and I had wanted to go to
graduate school as long as I could remember. I was told point blank
that if I didn't join the Ba'th party, no matter how well I did, I
would never go on to graduate school.I chose to come to the United
States. I don't know any of my engineering colleagues in Basra who
survived the Iran-Iraq war," Alwash reflected.
He finished his engineering degree at California State University,
Fullerton, and completed his master's and doctorate degrees through
scholarships from the University of Southern California. In the early
1990's, the years surrounding the struggle over Kuwait, Alwash avoided
political activism to start both his professional and family life.
Then, in 1994, he and his wife were impelled to act on behalf of the
"In 1994, my wife, who has her doctorate in geology, and I were
kayaking in southern California. All my memories of southern Iraq
reawakened. Together we pored over the beautiful photographs in Gavin
Young's book Return to the Marshes. We then happened to be in London
in 1994 and went to 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.the pictures even then
were devastating," Alwash said.
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," Alwash continued. "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.
"From the satellite photos revealed 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. Perhaps that is not so surprising given the many other
issues that compete for attention and the fact so few people have
first-hand knowledge of this ecosystem. It's about this time I became
more active in Iraqi organizations which advocate for the Iraqi
people," Alwash said.
Alwash is a member of the board of directors of the Iraq Foundation,
which supports a project to rejuvenate the marshes. He has also served
on the board of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy. His criticism of the
regime's destructive engineering in southern Iraq has not gone
unnoticed. Iraq security agents visit members of his family who still
live inside Iraq, forcing them to call other relatives in the United
States and to press Alwash and his family to cease their activities.
Despite the regime's scare tactics, Alwash continues to speak out
about the destruction of the Iraqi marshes. "As a result of the drying
out of these wetlands, 500,000 of the indigenous people were forced to
flee - their villages were destroyed, the reed beds were burned - they
had to abandon their way of life after thousands of years," he said.
"There are some reports that up to 100,000 Marsh Dwellers are refugees
in Iran. 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," he said, drawing parallels to the
destruction and loss of Native American culture in North America.
Alwash said he refuses to despair at what has been done. He said he
and other environmental experts are combining their energy and skills,
so that someday the beauty and bounty of Iraq's southern wetlands will
The Iraq Foundation project, named Eden Again, is beginning to
assemble a group of American and international experts on wetlands
restoration, Alwash said. This group of experts uses existing data and
new computer modeling efforts to develop alternative scenarios for the
marshes' eventual restoration. Experts believe that a partial
restoration of the marshes is still possible, but point out that much
of this unique ecosystem, and the culture that thrived in it, is
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