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Saving What Saddam Destroyed

An Iraqi exile and his wife hope to restore the world of marshes the dictator drained.

August 05, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

As U.S. occupation forces in Iraq struggle to rebuild the basics of civilization such as telephone service and dependable electricity, an Orange County couple is working toward a more evocative goal: restoring a vast marshland that some scholars believe was the site of the Bible's Garden of Eden.

As a child, Azzam Alwash traveled the southern wetlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with his father, an Iraqi civil engineer. The reed-choked archipelago of lakes and marshes, twice the size of the Florida Everglades, teemed with life: birds and fish, and hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims whose ancestors have plied the waters for 5,000 years.

"One of my earliest memories was of accompanying my dad on trips there," said Alwash, an Iraqi exile who lives in Fullerton, and -- like his father -- a civil engineer. "We'd go from one village to the next, resolving water issues. It's embedded in my memory: hanging my head over the side of the motorized boat, seeing the fish in the water. I remember the oppressive heat, and I remember passing a reed line and how the breeze that hit you cooled you down. Not many Iraqis have experienced that."

No one experiences that today. In the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein built a series of water diversion projects that drained 90% of the wetlands, depriving political opponents of their traditional way of life and rebels a place to hide. In three years, one of the Middle East's most durable ecosystems was turned into a salty desert.

With Saddam deposed, an idea hatched by Alwash and his wife, Suzie, a geology professor, in their living room six years ago is about to be tested in Iraq.

Their plan, called "Eden Again," is to flood and restore at least a portion of the region. It was developed with $220,000 given to the nonprofit Iraq Foundation by the U.S. State Department and by the efforts of North American and European wetland and engineering experts that the Alwashes brought together by going to conferences, networking and making cold calls.

Among the project's leaders is Michelle Stevens, a wetlands restoration specialist who took a year's leave of absence from her job with the California Department of Water Resources to be Eden Again's project manager.

"I felt like I was supposed to do it," she said. "It's what I could do to help and make a difference."

The State Department, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently began studying what it would take to restore the wetlands. The government has not endorsed any specific plan.

"Nobody knows what that really means," said one Bush administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Nobody knows how -- or how much -- can be restored and over what amount of time.... The U.S. government is taking this one step at a time."

Cost is one unknown, but far from the only one.

Some marsh Arabs turned to farming after the wetlands were drained, and have no desire to return to their traditional livelihood of raising water buffalo, the Times of London reported last week.

Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is whether Iraq has enough water. In recent years, water projects in several Middle East countries, particularly Turkey, have significantly reduced the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates through Iraq.

"The biggest obstacle to do this is not technical. It's political," Alwash said. "I have no illusions about how hard this task is going to be."

For Alwash, 45, restoring the ancient Mesopotamian marshes is a personal quest.

For political reasons, he moved from Iraq to California in 1978, a year before Saddam took control of Iraq. In exile, he embraced the United States, eventually becoming a partner at Pacific Soils Engineering in Tustin. He avoided getting involved in Iraqi opposition politics. He was an American now, and had little interest.

But Alwash and his American-born wife, who teaches at El Camino College in Torrance, are avid kayakers. On day trips to the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach, he'd tell her of his childhood trips with his father across the vast marshes of Iraq.

"To me, it's puny," he said of Orange County's surviving wetlands. "I kept telling her that one day I want to go back to Iraq and show you what wetlands really are."

On a trip to London in 1994, Alwash was invited to a conference at which government officials were shown images of the wetlands drained by Saddam. Alwash was stunned. "I realized that our dream of going back and seeing the marshes may never come true."

Three years later, he saw more photos of the devastation. He decided to act, and "took my show on the road."

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