It’s difficult, I know, to have rational thoughts about Iraq these days. We’re being told the troops are being withdrawn on schedule–British troops left earlier this year—but the bombings continue on a regular basis, and it’s not at all clear what will happen after US troops are no longer actively patrolling the country. The political dimensions of what the new Iraq will look like remain very unclear, especially since there is no new government actually in place, except for the fact that Iran is a lot more influential under the new government than it ever was under their sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein. There has been some movement in making Iraq more like America, however—Iraq is now back among the world leaders in executions. So one is left with rage and frustration over the waste, the carnage, the millions displaced, the hundreds of thousands dead, the geopolitical wreckage that will take decades to repair.
The fact that there are some bright spots might not—and does not—compensate. But bright sports there are. One is the tale of the Iraq marshes, and the efforts by Azzam Alwash to restore them. Back in the day when the marsh dwellers supported an uprising against Saddam, Saddam retaliated by draining the marshes. Well, one of the developments since Saddam’s ouster has been that the marshes are coming back, bit by bit. It’s a small victory, to be sure, but small victories should be celebrated when they come along, simply because there are so few of them ot begin with. We’ve been following this story for some time, and can’t help but feel a bit better about this little corner of Iraq. As the Der Spiegel story notes:
Of course, this isn’t just any old marsh. Alwash is fighting for a marsh which Biblical scholars believe is the site of the Garden of Eden, and which some describe as the cradle of civilization. The Mesopotamians settled in the fertile region in the fifth century B.C., and within a few centuries it had become the site of an advanced Sumerian civilization. Scholars believe that cuneiform was invented in the region, as were literature, mathematics, metallurgy, ceramics and the sailboat.
Only 20 years ago, an amazing aquatic world thrived in the area, which is in the middle of the desert. Larger than the Everglades, it extended across the southern end of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers divide into hundreds of channels before they come together again near Basra and flow into the Persian Gulf. For environmentalists, this marshland was a unique oasis of life, until the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had it drained in the early 1990s after a Shiite uprising.
And of course the recovery of the marshes is not going smoothly. The US government has cut off further funding. It’s still in the middle of a conflict zone, so outside experts often can’t actually come to the area to advise:
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.”
But still, this is something to celebrate, and support:
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.
There are numerous difficulties ahead, as the article points out—reduced flow from the Tigris and Euphrates because of Turkey’s plans for more dams, and Iraq’s development of its own oil reserves in particular pose longer term threats. Still, one can’t help but admire Alwash’s efforts, and wish him well. Given the sordid history of the area over the past several decades, and the uncertainties he, and the marshes, continue to face, he will need all the support he can get.