By Samiha Shafy
It was this promise that prompted Alwash to return to Iraq and raise funds for his plan, which involved the controlled flooding of former marshland. He and his collaborators called their ambitious plan the "Eden Again" project.
Curtis Richardson, an ecologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was part of the project from the very beginning, making research trips to the region between 2003 and 2007. "I've studied wetlands for my entire professional life," says Richardson, "but this marshland is the Holy Grail -- the Garden of Eden."
Soon, however, Richardson was forced to realize how naïve his enthusiasm had been. He spent many a sleepless night on the floor of his hotel room in Basra listening to the sound of gunshots outside. Heavily armed guards had to escort him during his field work. "You do feel a little strange when you're holding a pH monitor in your hand while everyone else is carrying a machine gun," he says.
Once, when Richardson went into the water near the Iranian border to take some samples, his translator, who was standing on the shore, suddenly began shouting and waving his arms wildly. "I had walked into a minefield," Richardson says. That was the moment he decided to abandon his field work.
"Azzam is fighting a courageous battle, but he needs help," says Richardson. The United States has cancelled its financial support for the project, and now most of its funding and scientific advice comes from Italy. Richardson estimates that no more than 30 to 40 percent of the former marshland can be transformed into a functioning ecosystem in the long term. But even that would represent an enormous improvement, not just for nature but also for Iraq's future.
Influencing the Climate
Because they retain the water from the rivers, the marshes could prove to be an important water source for the south. They also influence the climate. The region became hotter after the marshland was destroyed, says Richardson. When temperatures went over 50 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit), the crops dried up in the fields. The fishermen and shrimp growers also saw a sharp decline in their catch, because the marshes were no longer there to filter dirt and pollutants out of the rivers.
Now, about a third of the original river marshes are covered with water once again. Teams of international experts, Nature Iraq employees and representatives of three Iraqi ministries are demolishing dams, channeling water from the canals back into parched areas, sowing native plants and studying the composition of species and the development of plant and animal populations.
Before they flood a new area, the scientists measure salt and sulfur concentrations in the soil. Levels are so high in some places that neither reeds nor indigenous fish species can survive. A constant flow of fresh water is needed to flush out the salt and allow the soil to recover.
Alwash and his collaborators are developing a plan for the country's first national park: a protected zone of about 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) where the water supply will be regulated with a large number of floodgates. "We are in the process of drafting guidelines for nature reserves," says Giorgio Galli of Studio Galli Ingegneria Spa, an engineering firm in Padua, Italy. "This sort of thing has not existed in Iraq until now." The scientists hope that if the project materializes, it could be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Bombs 'Just Part of Daily Life'
But all of this is happening in the midst of a conflict zone. Dozens of employees of the project have died in terrorist attacks in the last seven years. Others, fearing for their lives, have left. Experts with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) can only provide advice from afar. For safety reasons, they have been barred from entering Iraq since 22 people died in an attack on the UN headquarters building in Baghdad in August 2003.
The situation seems to have calmed down somewhat recently. Basra is not as safe as Sulaymaniyah, but neither is it as dangerous as Baghdad. But security is a relative concept. Is the risk worth it? Can conservation even function in a country like this?
Alwash is used to bombs going off. "As long as you are at least 100 meters (about 330 feet) away, it's just part of daily life." He tries to explain how he feels: "For the first time in my life, I have the feeling that my work really helps people, and that I'm not just working to make money for my family and myself. That's fulfilling."
Nowadays, when Awash is traveling in the marsh of hope, he sometimes encounters images of his childhood. In Al-Hammar, a labyrinth of waterways leads through dense, meter-high reeds and comes together to form larger lakes. Dewdrops glisten on the reeds, rustling as they recede alongside the passing boat. A crescent moon fades away as the sun grows stronger. Tiny fish dash through the water, fleeing a water snake. And the birds are back: night herons, pied kingfishers, purple herons, little grebes, black-tailed godwits and marbled ducks.
Reed huts surrounded by sleepy water buffalo stand on small islands. Men and women with sunburned faces and long robes glide through the water in boats, cutting reeds, occasionally raising their hands in greeting.
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