Marsh Arabs steer reed-laden canoes in the marshes of southern Iraq. (Mohammed Sawaf / AFP/Getty…)
During his 30-year reign in Iraq, Saddam Hussein repeatedly plunged the country into war, even transforming an ancestral marshland some say is the "historical" Garden of Eden into a battleground.
To punish political enemies, Hussein built canals with names such as Mother of Battles to drain water from marshlands and sap the lifeblood of the Marsh Arabs, a community of indigenous Iraqis who depended on the swamp to survive.
An ecosystem twice the size of the Everglades became a desert of salt and sand. The Marsh Arabs scattered and became farmers and refugees.
But in 2003, a civil engineer and Iraqi immigrant living in Orange County moved back to Iraq to launch an ambitious environmental engineering project: reflood the marshes and bring back the Marsh Arabs.
On Monday, Azzam Alwash received the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work. It's one of six $150,000 awards that go to grass-roots environmental activists each year.
Alwash's efforts have helped restore about half the original spread of marshlands, and Marsh Arabs are starting to return in greater numbers.
Alwash said the marshlands are also poised to become Iraq's first national park. Officials are planning ecotourism centers and a nature guide training program.
Alwash received the prize because he made environmental protection a priority in the most unlikely of settings, said Lorrae Rominger, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
"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," Rominger said.
The project, which uses flow regulators to mechanically reflood the marshes each year, cost about $100 million to complete.
Funding came from local Iraqis and international sources.
To gain the support of officials and sponsors, Alwash said he couched his argument in terms of the intrinsic value of services the marshlands could provide.
"This is environment in the service of humanity," Alwash said. "The marshes are an engine of economy."
He boated the reed-lined waterways of the marsh with his father as a child. It was a "verdant, green Eden," he said.
Those marshlands will never be fully restored. Upstream dams of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have forever altered flooding patterns that were an annual "drumbeat of the symphony of biodiversity," Alwash said.
"It's forever going to be a managed wetlands," he said.
Alwash said he wants to use the money from the prize to advocate for more cooperative water policies between Iraq and Turkey.
"I want to change the dialogue from "whose water this is" to how we can cope with the issues together," he said.
Alwash vividly remembers his first return to the marshes in 2003. Where before reeds extended to the sky and fish darted in clear water, he found only dust and brackish water. But he also came across a Marsh Arab erecting a hut in a parched clearing, a trickle of water running nearby.
"Why did you return?" Alwash asked the man.
The man's answer could have been his own, Alwash said.