Hussein destroys 'Garden of Eden'
- From: bobhunt@...
Exile Wants to Return Life To Marsh Hussein Drained
Hussein Reduced 'Garden of Eden' on Tigris And Euphrates to
By BILL SPINDLE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Azzam Alwash pulled out a large satellite image
of southern Iraq on which splotches of reddish-brown dominate the
parched landscape. He pointed to some tiny dots of blue and rivulets of
green. They are all that's left of the great marshes that once lay
between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
"I remember all the green, and that wonderful smell of decaying
vegetation," says Mr. Alwash, whose father, an Iraqi civil engineer,
took his young son on surveys into the swamps. They rode in a long
wooden motor boat with a canopy in the middle, passing communities of
reed huts set among waterways that wound for miles through the grasses.
"I want to do it again with my kids," he says.
That won't be simple for the 44-year-old Iraqi exile. In an act of
destruction environmental groups compare with the devastation of the
rainforests of the Amazon, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the
swamps drained in the early 1990s, when the area became a refuge for
Shiite rebel groups. The rebels were destroyed. So were the marshes,
once home to the ancient Sumerians and an area some scholars consider to
be the inspiration for the Garden of Eden.
Turning a teeming swamp bigger than Florida's Everglades into a
salt-encrusted wasteland in less than a decade was no small feat.
Environmentalists are still puzzling over exactly how the Iraqi
government, which shrouded the project in secrecy, accomplished it.
Bringing back the wetlands -- once home to a half-million people and a
crucial stop for migratory birds -- will be considerably more difficult.
"There's virtually no water left," says Hassan Partow, a United Nations
researcher who has done a study on the destruction of the marshes.
"It's absolutely phenomenal to see the destruction of an ecosystem of
that scale in just five to six years."
Mr. Alwash has a plan. He concedes that it's a rough plan, based on
decades-old data. He drafted it in his living room along with his
geologist wife, drawing extensively from the intimate memories of the
terrain of his father and other exiles. Even if it has to be heavily
revised later, he says, some blueprint to revive the swamps is needed if
the U.S. is going to lead an invasion to topple Mr. Hussein.
If dams and waterworks upstream are bombed or rendered useless during or
after the U.S. campaign, the whole area could see an even greater
ecological disaster. In case of quick reflooding, the thick layer of
salt left over from evaporated marshes and polluted by toxins in recent
years would contaminate any new water that rushed in. The only
solution, he and environmentalists say, is to methodically flush out the
Mr. Alwash has lobbied Pentagon officials to avoid bombing dams and to
drop leaflets across southern Iraq urging people not to tear down
waterworks. He recently briefed a dozen officials at the U.S.
Department of State. Pentagon officials and exiled southern Iraqi
opponents of Mr. Hussein attended a presentation he gave last month at
a major conference of Iraqi dissidents in London.
Mr. Alwash also argues that if the U.S. decides to lead an invasion
and occupation of Iraq, some early, visible successes in renewing the
marshes could help convince Iraqis of the benefits of working with the
invaders. "This is one way to sell the idea to Iraqis, especially in
the south, that change brings tangible benefits," he says.
In 1978, Mr. Alwash moved to the U.S., abandoning a promising
engineering career in Iraq when he felt pressured to join a student
association affiliated with Mr. Hussein's ruling Ba'ath Party. He
thought little about the marshes as he married a geologist from a small
Texas town, set about raising two daughters and built a successful
career as an engineer in California.
On a family vacation in London in 1994, Mr. Alwash attended a
presentation about the destruction of the Iraqi marshes. Environmental
and human-rights groups were then only beginning to grasp the extent of
the damage. Mr. Alwash, a kayaking buff who would sometimes muse about
his childhood adventures in the Iraqi marshlands while paddling with his
wife, Suzanne, was shocked. "I'd been telling her, 'One day, we'll do
this in Iraq,' and there it was in the pictures, dying," he says.
Mr. Alwash began digging into just how the marshes were drained,
relying on Mr. Partow's U.N. environmental study for the basic
outline. Starting in 1992, Iraqi engineers worked around the clock for
nine months to build what became known as the Saddam River. Some 350
miles long, it diverts water from the Euphrates that would otherwise
flow into the main al Hammar marsh.
This project was followed by even larger hydroengineering schemes: the
Mother of Battles River in 1994 and the Fidelity to the Leader Canal in
1997. While the Iraqi government has always insisted that the projects
were aimed at reclaiming swampland for farming, various defectors and
environmental and human-rights groups say the scale of the projects
leaves little doubt that their goal was to destroy a huge refuge for
Mr. Hussein's opponents -- what Mr. Alwash calls Iraq's "Sherwood
Forest." The mud, thick reeds and winding waterways made the area
impassible for Mr. Hussein's soldiers and heavy equipment.
Eventually, Mr. Alwash saw a way he thought he could help. Many of the
environmental and human-rights groups were despairing that the
marshlands, now less than 5% of their original size, could ever be
restored. That is in part because new upstream dams in Turkey, Iran and
Syria have reduced the headwaters' flow to a fraction of their old
volume. But Mr. Alwash knew from his father's work that Iraqi rice and
barley farmers still use primitive and inefficient irrigation
techniques. If those techniques could be improved to reduce the amount
of water diverted to farming, more water would make it downstream to the
Mr. Alwash and his wife began poring over dissertations in the
libraries at the University of California, Los Angeles. But crucial
data from the period before the drainage projects were impossible to
obtain -- which is where Mr. Alwash's father came in.
Jawad Alwash grew up in southern Iraq, studied civil engineering in
Alexandria, Egypt, and then worked for decades in the southern marshes,
monitoring hydrological works and settling water disputes along the two
rivers. He retired in 1983 and was living in Baghdad when he and his
wife visited their son in the U.S. They were there when Iraq invaded
Kuwait in 1990, and never went home, eventually settling near
When his son described what had become of the wetlands, the senior Mr.
Alwash began teasing from his memory the flow data of rivers and
channels on satellite photos. He sketched maps for his son and
daughter-in-law on scrap paper, recalling how dams and regulators had
been designed to nudge the flow in one direction or another over the
extraordinarily flat terrain. He called former colleagues living in
exile in California to tap their recollections. One Thanksgiving at the
Alwash household consisted of a turkey dinner that was then cleared away
to make room for special, high-resolution satellite maps that the
younger Mr. Alwash had finagled from U.S. government officials.
Mr. Alwash has used that information to construct a computer model that
simulates various ways to reflood the wetland areas, depending on how
much water makes it downstream from the headwaters to the agricultural
zones just above the marshes.
When Mr. Hussein is no longer in power, Mr. Alwash and Suzanne, who
now spend their time delivering their presentation to any group that
will listen, hope to turn the blueprint and computer models over to
Iraqi engineers. "They know their problems better than anyone," he
says. Until then, he says, "this is the only wetlands-reclamation
project to be done completely by remote control."
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