Birds Not Bombs

An Iraqi American works to restore his native country’s valuable marshlands


| January-February 2011



birds-not-bombs

© Nik Wheeler / CORBIS

Saddam Hussein drained the unique wetlands of southern Iraq as a punishment to the region’s Marsh Arabs, who had backed an uprising. Two decades later, one courageous Iraqi American is leading efforts to restore the marshes. Not even exploding bombs can deter him from his dream.

Azzam Alwash is an anomaly in Iraq, a country devastated by war and terrorism. As he punts through the war zone in a wooden boat, his biggest concerns are a missing otter, poisoned water, and endangered birds. Who thinks about the environment in southern Iraq, and who is willing to risk his life to save a marsh?

“Isn’t this wonderful?” Alwash asks as his boat, accompanied by armed guards, glides through a channel lined with reeds. Flocks of birds fly through a reddish evening sky above the marshland, where the air temperature has dropped to 95 degrees—cool by local standards. Basra, a city devastated by war, is only 37 miles away, and yet it might as well be on another planet.

Water buffalo snort as they swim past the boat. Alwash, a broad-shouldered man with bushy gray hair and a mustache, is beaming as he sits upright on the rowing bench. “Just look at this,” he says. “There was a desert here just a few months ago.”

Alwash, 52, a citizen of Iraq and the United States, is a hydraulic engineer and the director of Nature Iraq, the country’s first and only environmental organization. He founded the organization in 2004 together with his wife, Suzanne, an American geologist, with financial support from the United States, Canada, Japan, and Italy. His goal is to save a largely dried-up marsh in southern Iraq. In return for giving up his job in California, Alwash is now putting his safety and health at risk.

He spends a lot of time flying from one continent to another. Four days ago, he traveled from Fullerton, California, where his family lives, to Amman, Jordan, to meet with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Then he flew to Basra to attend a conference, and now he is back in the marsh. His next stop is Baghdad, where he has an appointment at the environment ministry. After that, he will travel to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, where, for security reasons, Nature Iraq has its headquarters. After that, he has meetings scheduled with donors and advisers in the Italian cities of Padua and Venice. Other men have a mistress, says Alwash—he has the marshes.