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Iraqi Man Receives $150,000 To Restore His Country's Marshlands

Apr 16, 2013 02:37 PM EDT
Marsh Arab Women
Iraqi Marsh Arab women paddle their boats at the Chebayesh marsh in Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, February 15, 2013. The Marsh Arabs who had farmed this area for thousands of years, were badly affected by a campaign mounted by the government of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s to destroy their lifestyle. The marshes were drained of water, and hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs were forced to flee to cities, where they live in poverty, the locals in this area said. Picture taken February 15, 2013.
(Photo : REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani )

Iraqi Azzam Alwash was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize of $150,000 to aid in his efforts of restoring the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area twice the size of Florida's Everglades.

Once a thriving ecosystem, Saddam Hussein drained the region in an effort to silence opponents to his regime and, consequently, stripped the Marsh Arabs indigenous to the area of their home and livelihood.

Once the water fled, so did the people, who either became farmers or refugees.

Determined to reverse the damage, Alwash launched an environmental engineering project to reflood the marshes in 2003 and so far, it seems to be working. About half of the original swamp has been recovered and, in turn, Marsh Arabs are beginning to return.

In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, the marshlands may become Iraq's first national park complete with ecostourism centers and nature guides.

"To bring environmental protection to the forefront in war-torn Iraq, where people are focused on restoring peace and staying alive, that would seem an impossible challenge, but not to Azzam," said Lorrae rominger, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Prize, according to the Times.

Ultimately, however, the award is a drop in the proverbial bucket for Azzam, for whom the the project, which uses flow regulators to mechanically reflood the marshes each year, cost $100 million. Funding thus far has largely originated from local Iraqis and international funding. 

In order to be successful in raising such a significant amount, Alwash said he explained that the marshes were and could be once again an "engine of the economy."

And while progress is notable, Alwash knows it will never be the same. Because of the altered flooding patterns that were once an annual "drumbeat of the symphony of biodiversity," they will forever be managed wetlands.

Still, he says, it's a task of restoring not just water, but dignity - for him, his people and his country, a goal the prestigious award could only prove a boon to. And should Turkey become involved, which Alwash says he hopes to make happen, the marshlands could be secured for generations.

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