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Iraq: Conservationist Discusses Marsh-Revitalization Project

Marsh Arabs near Al-Basrah in March (AFP) June 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Azzam Alwash, director of Nature Iraq, an environmental group dedicated to revitalizing the Iraq's marshes, recently spoke with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina about the scientific and social achievements that have been made in recent months on this project.

RFE/RL: I wanted to ask you first, with the security situation in Iraq at the moment, which areas in Iraq are you able to work in?

Alwash: Well obviously, work around Baghdad is next to impossible. We had wanted to collect water samples from the Diyala River -- where the Diyala meets the Tigris River -- because of sewage pollution. We were not able to operate there because of the presence of terrorists, as well as the -- shall we say -- paranoia of the security service. So we decided to skip that project for this year and wait until the situation around Baghdad settles down, if it ever settles down.

"This story is actually one of the positive stories coming out of Iraq, in contrast to the other stories that you here with the gore and the violence and kidnappings and so on."

Where we can work with relative freedom is the south of Iraq, as well as Iraqi Kurdistan. We have a team of about 20 people who go out every month to collect samples from over 60 peaks and sites all around the marshes. And they operate with relative ease, and I say relative ease because they can't just run around like regular scientists, collecting samples and conducting interviews. They have to be accompanied by guards and tribesman to assure that they won;t be kidnapped for ransom or be harassed by anyone.

Of course we have to provide them with all sorts of legal paperwork to prove that they're working on a real project and not imaginary, perhaps collecting intelligence for this entity or that entity. It's an interesting way of operating. I've never really operated in such a way before, but it adds levels of difficulty to the logistics of the situation. But we have not had any situation where our people were harmed over the past 2 1/2 years, and we have operated with relative ease in the south.

Just this past winter we conducting area surveying in [Iraq's Kurdish region]. We visited about 33 different sites, and we operated also without incident. But again we had to provide our people with paperwork and be accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Environment just so they won't be hindered under the suspicion of being in sensitive areas collecting intelligence, information for any entity other than Nature Iraq.

So it's an interesting way of conducting science, but we're working nonetheless. The work continues and we can collect data for our database, and we analyze the data and produce reports in preparation for making the data public. We have a lot of projects going on and this story is actually one of the positive stories coming out of Iraq, in contrast to the other stories that you here with the gore and the violence and kidnappings and so on.

RFE/RL: You had this project of restoring the marshes that, when we spoke last year, was developing pretty successfully. How are things there now?

Alwash: Well, we produced a final report basically providing a huge database. All of the database that we have collected over the past 2 1/2 years is available on the Internet on our website. You can connect to the FTP site and download the entire database and the entire study. It's about four volumes -- it's really very big. But in essence the major conclusion of the study is that in Iraq you can restore up to 75 percent of the marshes based on the limited water resources of Iraq.

A Marsh Arab girl tends buffalo near Al-Basrah in March (AFP)

In other words, we don't need an agreement with Turkey or any other entity. We can actually restore 75 percent of the marshes with water derivated from the territory inside Iraq. That's a huge finding, to be honest with you. But of course there's a little bit of a caveat to this finding -- that in fact we need to manage the water resources of Iraq in an efficient and scientific manner so that we assure balance between the competing interests for the limited water available at this point in Iraq.

There's demand by agriculture. There's demand by industry. There's demand by the greater city, and of course there's demand by the environment. And one of the biggest challenges that we actually were able to resolve is the idea of creating or recreating the hydropulse. The marshes evolved around this idea of a periodic hydropulse of the flooding that comes through the snowmelt of the mountains of Kurdistan.

Just about this time of the year, we used to get the maximum amount of flow into the marshes. Sixty percent of Iraq's water resources came in during the snowmelt between February and May. That flooding cycle was an important and an essential part of the evolution of the marshes. It comes in timed with the reed coming out of hibernation. It comes in timed with the fish spawning and the birds migrating and all of that. And what it does, it pushes out the brackish water that is collected from evaporation of the year before. It brings in silt and clay to renew the agricultural land around the perimeter of the marshes. It increases the depth of the water, and that pulse is needed if we are, in fact, going to return the marshes to their original biodiversity.

Our plan basically recognizes the existence of dams inside Iraq and outside Iraq that essentially has splintered, reduced, eliminated this hydropulse. Until 1975, we used to have periodically floods inside the marshes. In order to work around this problem, obviously, the dams are going to be here for the next 100, 150 years, which is basically the life cycle of the dams. We're not going to be able to get rid of the dams. So, in order to save the marshes for future generations, we came up with a plan that essentially controls and directs the water of Iraq during the late winter, early spring, and directs its way into the marshes, and holds it inside the marshes so that we can actually recreate a portion of this hydropulse. And that's why we can only recover 75 percent of the marshes -- because we have limited our studies, our models, to the water available in Iraq.

Withering reeds in an unrevitalized portion of the marsh (courtesy photo)

Obviously, if we reach an agreement with Turkey about creating a water or environmental share for the marshes that they can release the spring and we can direct it into the marshes, then all the better. Then we can restore up to 100 percent of the marshes.

The plan, as I said, requires the modern management of water. And for that, you need to construct structures to regulate the water, to force the water into the marshes and hold it inside the marshes. We also need to install mounting stations to estimate how much snow there is, where the water is going. And that, obviously, costs money.

This past year we have designed all the control structures that we need for the marshes. We have purchased 25 mounting stations out of 140 that are needed. The remainder of the mounting stations is going to be installed by the United States government, so the Italian government is contributing 25, and hopefully within two years Iraq is going to have in place all the modern tools needed to manage the water resources in an efficient and modern way.

What remains, obviously, is the training of the cadres of the ministries and creating a water policy that is equitable for all the stakeholders inside Iraq. So we will continue in future years to lobby the Iraqi parliament, the various political institutes that are going to be created under the federalization program. And we're going to lobby for the implementation of our master plan, and modify the master plan, because it is in fact a living document that requires its own evolution, as it were, with the various changes and constraints and conditions on the ground.

We're doing state-of-the-art design and engineering. It's 20 years ahead of where Iraq is at this point, but we have high hopes that Iraqi cadre will catch up with our plans and adopt them as their own.

RFE/RL: I know that you actually started to bring water back last year, but I read and heard that because of the lack of government services and the lack of a functional infastructure in Iraq, the rivers are really badly polluted. Is this really the case?

Alwash: Indeed, indeed. Iraq has been and is using the Tigris and Euphrates as essentially open sewers. Most Iraqi cities don't even have sewage collection networks, so most of the sewage and industrial waste gets dumped into the river.

Remember I was telling you about the Diyala. Bagdad sewage system dumps directly into the Diyala and because of the lack of a sewage system and lack of maintenance of the sewage plans, everything gets dumped directly into the the Tigris and, of course, the Euphrates.

"I have pictures of huts in the marshes with satellite dishes on top. This is beautiful, this is great! I mean, it's an ugly dish, but the fact is that a village in the middle of the marshes is no longer an isolated place from the global village."

The drainage water from irrigation canals on the Euphrates in western Iraq gets dumped back into the Euphrates. The water quality gets progressively worse from the north to the south. It gets really worse around Al-Basrah.

One thing that I am really afraid of is the activation of the state-owned industries. There're about 192 state industries that existed prior to [former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's] demise. Every one of these plants used to dump its sewage and output directly into canals leading to the Tigris and the Euphrates. If these plants get reactivated without the implementation of environmental controls over their output, my gosh, the water is going to get even more polluted.

Incidentally the marshes acted, prior to their drying, in the 1980s when the military and civilization of Iraq were at their epics, the marshes acted as a biofilter protecting the gulf from the 90 percent of the industrial waste. The marshes acted as the biggest biofilter that ever was. The roots of the reeds basically cleanse 90-95 percent of the hydrocarbons and the biological matter, shall we say, and even some of the metals get absorbed to the reed roots.

Water pollution is a major problem for Iraqis living south of Bagdad, because that's where the majority of the pollution really is created.

RFE/RL: Nevertheless one really great story that I've read on your website is that you managed to publish a bird book, "Birds Of Iraq." When Hussein drained the marshes, I really felt sorry for those poor birds that migrate from Siberia to that continent and stopped at the marshes, and now they don't have anyplace to stop. Does this mean that they have no place to stop and have to return to their roots?

Al-Wash: I have great news for bird lovers. Nature is really resilient. Those birds that used to rest in the marshes or end their migration and do their winter hibernation living in the marshes --when the marshes got dry, they just basically found other places. Yes, their numbers got reduced, but with the return of the marshes the birds came back in great, great numbers.

Marsh Arabs gathering reeds near Al-Basrah in March (AFP)

We have discovered 12 different species that were thought to be world endangered, that were on the endangered list. Every time our team goes to the field, they come back with new findings that make "Birdlife International."

And of course Birdlife helped us create this bird book, the first field guide for birds of Iraq in Arabic. We are growing the bird-watching hobby. Unfortunately, the truth the majority of the bird lovers are hunters who hunt them for meat -- but there are plenty of them, so no problem.

As long as the people value the marshes as a place where birds can come so that they can actually hunt them, that'll fine. Our book actually got spoofed by "The Daily Show" a week ago. In a country that is on the verge of civil war, it is kind of interesting that people are taking on to watching birds, but we have a growing constituency of bird watchers and we're actually extending that into the north.

We're doing biodiversity surveying, bird surveys in important areas in Kurdistan. We're discovering it's an incredible place. There are so many wetlands, so many areas where birds accumulate, and we're fortunate in the fact that the majority of people do not live in a dispersed way, they live in small villages and big cities.

Vast, vast areas in Iraq are in undisturbed natural condition and that is, of course, is conducive to wildlife. There are so many birds, so many different species that we keep on documenting. It's incredible.

RFE/RL: When we talked last year, you mentioned that the Marsh Arabs had started to return to the marshes and actually even represented a bit of a danger for the fish that returned back to the marshes. How is the process now? Are the people still coming back?

Alwash: The process continues, especially with the increased violence in Baghdad. That has caused a reverse migration process of a lot of people leaving the slums of Baghdad and coming back to areas that have been restored, so the pressure on fishing is increasing.

In fact, the need for additional wetlands has caused just recently...-- and I can document this to you, about 2 1/2 weeks ago on the 3rd of May people took it upon themselves to break the right side of the embankment of the Euphrates to create more flooded areas of the marsh so that the area of fishing can increase. In other words, restoration is continuously being done by the people themselves as an indication of their economic need. This is interesting.

Everywhere else marshlands or wetlands have been destroyed in the past 50 years because people wanted to cover land for agriculture. In Iraq, the process was reversed. Because they have realized that the marshland soil, at least in Iraq, is not very conducive to agriculture, and in fact they can create more of an income by fishing. They began taking down the dikes that [Hussein's] regime built to dry the marshes and creating more flooded areas.

So it continues to be a struggle between what nature can provide and the demands made by humans on the economic output, on fishing and reeds. I can tell you also that the number of buffalo just exploded. We don't even know how many water buffalo. At one point in time, we could count them at 6,000. We're not counting at this point.

Each water buffalo, by the way, is [worth] about $1,500. That's a huge fortune in Iraq, so when you multiple that by the number of water buffalo, you understand what an economic output that is. So I am concerned about the stress of fishermen on the fishing, but also encourage the fact that they are taking things into their own hands and creating more wetlands so that they could actually increase the output with the fishing.

We have started a program this past year with Al-Basrah University where, with Italian funding, we wanted to create 5 million hatchlings. We were only able to create 3 million, but these 3 million fingerlings we released into the marshes to help nature, give nature a push. We feed these fingerlings until they are about 6 months old so they have a better chance to survive in the marshes. We'll see what happens in the near future. As more business opportunities get created, hopefully stress on the environment becomes lessened and nature is given more of a reprieve or a lot more time to restore itself.

RFE/RL: And the New Eden Village. What is this project?

Alwash: The New Eden Village -- we're still looking for funding for it. We finished the final design and it's going to cost about $55 million. Because it is the very first village, it's a huge price tag, so we're trying to convince the Iraqi government to try to take it upon its shoulders as one of the projects that they will implement.

Obviously, they cannot implement only one village because that's going to create a war inside the marshes, because every community is going to want one of these villages in their neighborhood. But the design is completed. We are lobbying the Ministry of Environment of Iraq and the Ministry of Marshes to adopt this project as one of their future projects for 2008.

RFE/RL: And what is it about? Is it a new modern Marsh Arab village town?

Alwash: People in the marshes for the past 500 years built their houses out of reeds, and so what we did was take this building material, add to it a bit of modern technology, and design houses that look exactly like the traditional hut. But inside the hut, we created partitions and rooms and kitchens and restrooms. We design sewage-collection systems to treat the sewage water, instead of it being dumped into the marsh.

Marsh Arabs near Al-Basrah in March (AFP)

We also included solar cells to create enough energy to run a fan. We also put in a community generator to provide more current if people want to put in air-conditioning units. In other words, we're providing modern life technologies, which is what women want. I mean, when we did our initial work surveying whether people want to go back to the marshes or not, the men said, "yes, we want to go." But the women said: "Yeah, we'd like to go, but we want our TV. We want our telephones. We want light. We want schools for our children. We want a hospital for our children."

You know, the demands of men and women are different, so we try to create a community that is traditional, that uses local materials, that hopefully in a cheap way can replicate the designs themselves, and provide services and modern life conveniences in an environmentally sensitive manner.

RFE/RL: And those people who moved back, do they have any services at the moment? I remember last year it was a problem that there was no school, no services provided.

Alwash: Unfortunately, that problem continues. People are coming back nonetheless. Again, that is probably the result of the violence in Baghdad more that their desire to come back by themselves, but I guarantee you that when services are provided, there'll be a huge wave of reverse migration.

Why did people leave the marshes? Of course, because they dried up and [the people] lost their opportunities to make a living from fishing or reeds. They went to Baghdad. They went to the various cities to try to find ways to make a living. If modern life conveniences are provided and they can use the marshes to make a living, there'll be nothing that holds them back and ties them down to the city.

I have pictures of huts in the marshes with satellite dishes on top. This is beautiful, this is great! I mean, it's an ugly dish, but the fact is that a village in the middle of the marshes is no longer an isolated place from the global village.

Iraq's Kurdish Region

Iraq's Kurdish Region

KURDISH AWAKENING: The ethnic Kurdish region in the northern part of Iraq has struggled in recent years to reestablish its cultural and political identity after decades of oppression under the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In December, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel traveled to this area and filed several reports:

Relative Peace Underscores Issue Of Kurdish Region's Future

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Irbil’s Kurds Live On A Hill Of Undiscovered Treasures

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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