Meet Dr Azzam Alwash - a Keynote Addressee at ACFID Conference 2022

Chibaish Marshes, Iraq.

Rebecca Hamilton

23 Sep, 2022

Dr Azzam Alwash fondly remembers a childhood spent exploring the reed forests of the Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq – a water world, in the middle of a desert. In a small, narrow boat, he and his father navigated the network of tributaries, which formed part of a 20,000 square kilometre ecosystem, the largest wetland in the Middle East. A biodiversity oasis, the marshlands supported a range of fish and birdlife and were once home to several hundred thousand Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs, until Saddam Hussein entered Kuwait in August,1990.

 

Over the course of the seven-month-long Iraqi military occupation of the country, the marshlands of Dr Alwash’s childhood became a dusty, salt-encrusted wasteland - burned and drained by Saddam Hussein’s forces in what many believe was an act of retaliation against the Ma’dan for their attempted uprising against the occupation of their ancestral homeland. The Mesopotamian Marshes are alternately referred to as the cradle of civilisation, the Garden of Eden, or the Fertile Crescent – the tragic demise of this historically, culturally, and ecologically significant sanctuary was described by the then-Director of the United Nations Environment Program Dr Klaus Toepfer as a disaster comparable to the deforestation of large tracts of the Amazon.

 

When Saddam rose to power, Dr Alwesh moved to the United States to escape persecution, carrying with him memories of his homeland and the marshes, and the connection to nature instilled in him from an early age from his father. He completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in Civil Engineering at the California State University at Fullerton, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Southern California and enjoyed a fulfilling career as a soil and environmental engineering consultant. It was the 2001 United Nations Environment Program report detailing the mass destruction of the marshes, that he had once longed to show his daughters, that drew Dr Alwash back to war-torn Iraq, where he and his wife Dr Suzie Alwash founded the Eden Again Project, which was later to become Nature Iraq.

 

Their mission? Spearheading the restoration of the marshes, the return of wildlife, and resumption of a traditional, sustainable way of life for the Ma’dan people, many of whom spent many years living in refugee camps following their displacement. Dr Alwash worked passionately and tirelessly – both practically, through his hydraulic engineering experience, and politically, as an activist. Advocating to the environmental and water resource ministries and convincing officials about the environmental, social, and economic benefits of not just the recovery of the wetlands, but the preservation of the environment of Iraq and its cultural heritage, resulted in an incredible story of healing – healing of a magnitude many conservationists believed impossible.

 

“The reflooding of the marshes is a great example of Iraq rising from the ashes of destruction,” says Dr Alwash. “If you see pictures of the marshlands after they had been drained and compare it to how they look now – this strange, verdant water world in the middle of the desert – you can’t help but be amazed how wonderful and robust nature is[1].”

The Iraqi marshlands were listed in 2016 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site – Dr Awash considers the ecosystem to be extremely fragile, but alive, thriving, and resonant of the aquatic oasis it once was.

 

ACFID is thrilled to welcome Dr Alwash to share his story at this years’ Conference. Hear firsthand about this incredible conservation effort and be inspired by the hope it represents.   “Dream, and dream big”, says Dr Alwash. “It’s free, first of all – but it’s possible.”

BIO:

Dr. Azzam Alwash was born in Kut, Iraq in 1958 and left for the United States in 1978 to complete his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at the University of Southern California.  Dr Alwash founded ‘Eden Again’, a program spotlighting the drying of the marshes of southern Iraq, under the auspices of the Free Iraq Foundation, where he is a member of the board of directors.  After the removal of Saddam Hussein, Dr Alwash returned to war-torn Iraq to lead local communities in restoring the once-lush Mesopotamian marshlands in southern Iraq, known by many as the birthplace of civilization, that were turned to dust bowls during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

 

Dr Alwash subsequently founded Nature Iraq, an Iraqi NGO focusing on the preservation of the environment of Iraq and its cultural heritage.  His efforts earned him the Takreem Award in 2011 and The Goldman Environmental Prize for the 2013 as well as being designated one of the 100 forward thinking leaders of the world by the Foreign Policy Group in 2013. The Mesopotamian marshlands were declared Iraq’s first national park that same year.

 

In 2006, and in recognition of the need of Iraq to improve its undergraduate education, he became a founding member of the board of trustees of the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani.  The mission of the university is to be the builder of the future leadership of Iraq and the region using the liberal arts model.

 

Dr. Alwash is currently the personal advisor of President Barham Salih on climate change issues, participating officially in COP 26 and supporting preparation for COP 27.  He continues to work tirelessly on environmental issues, suggesting that water can be an instrument of peace rather than the source of tension in the future Middle East.


[1] https://www.positive.news/environment/how-a-disaster-zone-in-iraq-became-a-conservation-success-story/

 

  • Rebecca Hamilton
    Rebecca Hamilton

    Rebecca is a member of ACFID's Policy and Advocacy Team, from a background in both the public and private sectors – with the International Policy Division at the Department of Defence, the Pacific Branch within the then Australian Agency for International Development, and more recently with Coffey International working on the Australia Awards Indonesia Scholarship Program. 

    Rebecca has a BA and Master’s Degree in International Studies from the University of Queensland.
     

     


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