Azzam Alwash could hear the sounds of the reeds rustling in a light breeze. He could smell the soupy water – gazing over the sides of a wooden boat as it parted the dense vegetation. He remembered the marshlands of his youth in Southern Iraq as a paradise, referred to by many as the Biblical Garden of Eden.
But as those memories found Alwash, he was living another life as a successful engineer in Los Angeles.
And the marshes of his youth were gone too; dammed and choked-off by former Iraqi President Sadaam Hussein, in a hostile campaign to punish the people known as the "Marsh Arabs."
“When I heard about its destruction in 1997,” Alwash said, “the engineer in me could not believe that’s possible.”
On Monday, the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize honored Alwash and five others in San Francisco for their grassroots work around the globe. Alwash was recognized for his work restoring the marshes.
The Mesopotamia marshlands once fanned across more than 12,000 miles of Southern Iraq with tiny inter-connected lakes and mudflats. They dwelled at the intersection of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, blanketing an area twice the size of Florida’s Everglades.
When Hussein was finally thumped from power in 2003, Alwash searched his soul, faced his family and stared down the one conclusion that seemed to make sense to him: He would return to Iraq and try and undo the great undoing of the marshes.
“It was one of the hardest decisions to let go of that,” he said of his life in Southern California, “and go to the uncertainty of going to Iraq and working on passion.”
Alwash founded the environmental group Nature Iraq, and set about trying to undo 35 years of war and sanctions. Even before he arrived in Iraq, the Arabs native to the marshes had already begun to tear down some of the levees erected by Hussein and others.
“They didn’t restore the marshes because they’re tree-huggers or kayakers or nature lovers,” Alwash said. “They restored the marshes because it’s a way of life it’s dignity.”
As the group peeled back the layers of development, the healing river waters began to flow like a healing salve across the cracked earth. The restoration workers unleashed the waters, but the waters did the heavy lifting. Tiny reeds began to burst from the mud, eventually transforming once again into dense forests. Life had begun to flow back.
“When the reeds come back, the water buffalo comes back, the fish come back,” Alwash said. “Everything comes back.”
Alwash will never claim to be the prime mover of the marsh restoration. He said he was merely the man with ideas, skills, and the emotional connection to the marshes to push things along. A trim man of silver hair, he bursts with fits of laughter as speaks. But his voice falls to a hushed reverence as he rummages for recollections of the marshlands.
“I have very fond memories of these marshes as a young man,” Alwash said just above a whisper. “In a single boat with my dad, in these meandering canals with reeds extending as far as the eye can see.”
Alwash said the Goldman award, considered to be the environmental equivalent of a Nobel Prize, was an exciting honor, reflecting an entire community’s dogged work. He said he would accept it on behalf of the Marsh Arabs who are once again living among the wetlands.
But to Alwash, who has relinquished some of his duties with the nature group he started, the work of repairing his native Iraq is in many ways like the marsh reeds themselves -- beginning to burst open with the promise of forests ahead.