Iraq’s history stretches far beyond its troubled years under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Its Tigris and Euphrates rivers are rich water bodies that provided for the very centers of ancient civilization. But the country’s modern conflicts severely eroded these natural resources.

In 2004, Azzam Alwash founded Nature Iraq, an NGO and tax-exempt charity dedicated to protecting Iraq’s environment, after discovering that Hussein had drained the marshlands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, depriving the indigenous Marsh Arabs of their livelihood and stripping away the hideaways where rebels based their operations. When Iraq was not allowed to sell any oil, all of its construction equipment was allocated to draining marshes; so much so, roughly 10% of the marshland’s original capacity remained.

Alwash, 54, had left a successful career as a partner in a geotechnical consultancy in Southern California to assist in the rebuilding of Iraq. He had left the country in 1978 when he was at university because he refused to join the Ba’ath party. He started his engineering education all over again and obtained his civil engineering undergraduate degree from California State University at Fullerton and went on to get a Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering at the University of Southern California.

In 2006, Nature Iraq published the First Field Guide to Birds of Iraq, which is one of the few Arabic-language field guides. He spoke with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton about his efforts.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Nature Iraq was started in 2004. Can you tell me why you decided to start the organization then?

Azzam Alwash: I originally went back to Iraq under the aegis of a project called Eden Again, in partnership with The Iraq Foundation, which was to look at the situation of the marshes in southern Iraq. But after spending a year in Iraq, I recognized that not only were the marshes the problem but the environment in Iraq, more importantly, the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which feeds the marshes. If I wanted the marshes to be in good shape, I needed to make sure that Iraq stopped using the Tigris and Euphrates as open sewers. So the logical solution was to create an environmental NGO. Of course the other option was to join the political process but that’s not my cup of tea, as it were. So I started Nature Iraq as a NGO to focus on the restoration of the marshes, the cultural preservation of Iraq and the protection of the natural environment. Eight years later, I’m still at it.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you talk about the history of the organization and how it’s evolved?

Alwash: I’m originally from southern Iraq. I grew up in and around the marshes. Back in the 1990s when I found out the marshes were being dried or had been dried up already, I began joining international efforts against Saddam trying to point out that while everyone was looking for weapons of mass destruction that was right under everyone’s noses, here is Saddam depriving 12,000-year-old civilization depriving the marshlands of water. Nobody was paying attention to what I was saying until 9/11. Then everyone started paying attention to what Saddam was doing to Iraq. From there, it worked upstream. I had people questioning whether the marshes could be restored. I had people saying the Marsh Arabs didn’t want to come back. Supposedly the people who were taking care of the marshes claimed that they didn’t want to go back to the marshes because they lost the skills needed to work on the marshes.

My very first project in June 2003 was to physically explore whether the marshes can be restored. Fortunately for me, it turns out I didn’t have to fight the battle. In fact, the Marsh Arabs returned and began to fill the marshes. So it was a fallacy that people didn’t want the marshes restored. Furthermore, in six months, I began to see the marshes are bigger than Saddam Hussein, bigger than a body of water, bigger than nature. Within six months, weeds were growing, birds were coming back. I recognized that nature is very strong and will survive. It’s as simple as, "Let the water let back in."

Of course, water is an issue. After working for about six to seven months, I began noticing that a lot of sewage systems were not operating because of the war and sanctions. Many cities did not have sewage systems. A lot of people were using the Tigris and Euphrates as open sewers and putting bad water into the marshes. The irony is if you want clean water, you put it into the marshes. The marshes turn out to be good buffer between the Tigris and Euphrates and the Gulf.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Nature Iraq is one of the first organizations to address the overall environmental health of a rebuilding nation to deal with water scarcity, sustainable farming, pollution and environmental restoration. In the rebuilding of a nation, does the environment have trouble retaining high priority?

Alwash: I’d be lying if I told you yes. Some people view my activities as that of a fool. People are looking for jobs. People are worried about security. And here I am worrying about the environment. I keep saying to people, "This cannot take a second seat." We cannot wait for the war to be over. We cannot wait for the politicians to settle their differences. Moreover, the Marsh Arabs use the environment for their livelihoods. It’s a new benefit to put them back to work in the marshes because that gives them a livelihood. You don’t have to worry about them joining the rebellion. It’s true the environment is quite low in the priority of the government of Iraq. But I’m not going to yield to the opinion that we have to wait. Each one of us works to help the nation in whatever capacity they have. I am not a fighter. I am not a politician. I’m a tree hugger and a proud one at that. And that’s how I choose to help the nation of Iraq.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: The Marsh Arabs use the environment for their livelihood?

Alwash: What you have to understand is the marshes are the cradle of civilization. On the edges of the marshes is where organized agriculture started. The first cities were built around the edges of the marshes. We have thousands of birds, pigs and wildlife harvesting the natural resources. From the reeds of these marshes, people built their houses and fed their water buffalo. From the lakes, they fished and never had to starve and plan for the winters. The periodic floods were the source of renewal for the grasslands. Around the edges of the marshes were the grasslands, the first farms in the history of mankind. For 7,000 years, the Sumerians and Marsh Arabs did not need fertilizers. The national flood cycles passed on the salts that accumulated from evaporation and passed new layers onto the farmlands around the marshes. They talk today about sustainable development. The Sumerians have practiced sustainable development for the last 7,000 years.

When I say Iraq, people say war, people say oil, people say sand, people say Saddam, people say weapons of mass destruction. To me, Iraq is majestic mountains, beautiful valleys, waters from the Tigris and Euphrates and this marvelous Eden in southern Iraq that very few people know about. Not even Iraqis. You have to understand Iraqis born after the 1970s have never seen the marshes because Iraq has been in a state of war since the 1980s when Iraq attacked Iran. So this treasure, this world heritage site, is unknown to even Iraqis.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: One of your most high-profile projects is the restoration of the southern Iraqi marshlands, which many scholars believe was the site of the Garden of Eden and the birthplace of Abraham. Was that one of the first projects you began work on?

Alwash: According to Genesis, four rivers feed Eden. The marshes are fed by the Tigris and Euphrates but also by two small rivers from the Iranian mountains. In fact in the study of Creation, Noah’s flood is mentioned in the tablets. The story of Adam and Eve is in fact in the marshes. Some people speculate this is the description of Eden. Who knows?

I like to fool myself into thinking that this is the description of Eden but my geologist background makes me understand that these marshes did not exist in Iraq until the end of the Ice Age, which was around 11,000 thousand years ago. Before that, the sea level was about 450 feet deeper that it is today. That would make the marshes around Oman at the opening of the Arabian Sea. So the location of the marshes changes depending on sea level. The historic sea level changes so it depends on the [interpretation] of Eden in the Bible.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: As a child, you used to accompany your father, a water engineer, around these marshlands. Can you tell me about the change in the landscape?

Alwash: To me, marshes have very warm memories in my heart. My dad, as an irrigation engineer, was a very busy man like I am today. He didn’t have time for me. One of the few times I had with him to myself is when we went into the marshes with him in these small boats. The city I grew up was not on the marshes but on the edge of the desert. It was about an hour away from the marshes. So it was really amazing for me, as a young kid, to go to an incredible water world. Instead of roads, you had trees and canals. You have towering reeds. In the shade, you could see where the water was clear. I have very vivid memories of me overlooking the sides of the boat, seeing fish, big fish. Every now and then, we would go to wide, open lakes where we disturbed the birds. It turned out my father always took a hunting gun. He was very big at hunting birds. I didn’t pick up a love of hunting but I did pick up a desire for the marshes from him.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do the marshes not look like that anymore?

Alwash: It does in some places. There are portions of the marshes that are drier than any other desert you’ve seen and there are portions that are as beautiful as I remember them. It’s not a story of complete success but it’s not a story of death either. Rather it’s a story of a phoenix rising out of death and destruction, slowly but surely.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Saddam Hussein drained the marshlands to roughly 10% of its original water capacity. How did he do that?

Alwash: What remained was about 700 square kilometers around the border between Iraq and Iran. It could’ve dried out because water was coming in from Iran, at least at the time. It went down from around 12,000 to 15,000 square kilometers to 700 square kilometers, however much that is. It was quite a devastating project. His engineers excavated six major rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates. He went ahead and built high embankments around the Tigris and Euphrates so that in event of floods, the capacity of rivers would be big enough to handle whatever floods are coming in.

At that time, Iraq wasn’t allowed to sell a single drop of oil between 1990 and 1996. Literally all the construction equipment in the country was used to dry the marshes because they couldn’t sell oil.

The reason they gave at that time was for agricultural recovery, to recover the marshlands as if Iraq was devoid of agricultural lands. Those of us who knew Iraq knew the marshes were a refuge for the resistance. For them it was a fear that the West would use the marshes as a place to cause public rebellion. So he went about destroying the place where the Marsh Arabs and the resistance could easily hide from the "Sherriff of Nottingham." I call the marshes our Sherwood Forest because that’s where the rebels go to hide from the "Sherriff of Baghdad."

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Some tribes had returned to the area and began to return the water to the area themselves. How did they do that? Is that from the knowledge of taking care of the lands for thousands of years?

Alwash: Well, you don’t have to go to school to know how to irrigate. You just have to be a farmer. These guys know the hydraulics of the area better than I do. It’s true the restoration process has been ad hoc and without really a massive plan behind the scenes. We’ve suggested where breaks can be strategically placed to allow as much water from the Tigris and Euphrates into the marshes.

Now the problem is we don’t have enough water from the Tigris and Euphrates. Something that was happening simultaneously when drying up the marshes was Turkey embarked on something called the gap project, which is a series of 33-meter dams, and what I hear are 1,000 smaller dams. What happened is these dams hold the combined capacity of the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in five to six years. We have a little bit more water during the summer than we did before but the cycle of floods have gone. For the next 200 years, these dams get filled up with dirt. Marshes are surviving and reeds can grow in salty water. But the biodiversity of the marshes is going to change, that’s for sure.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Nature Iraq is the only Iraqi partner of Waterkeeper’s Alliance. How did you go about setting up such partnerships?

Alwash: We have to prove sustainability and we’ve been here eight years so that’s proof in it of itself. We have to prove we’re a democratic organization. I just left the CEO position to become president of the board so that’s happening. We have to be membership based and we are in fact membership based so it wasn’t that difficult.

Iraq has the marshes and they’re one of the most important marshlands in the world. It’s a major resting spot for migratory birds. The Alliance was easy from that point of view. We share a common goal. We just have to modify our method of operations to fit the international mode and we’re doing that.

Of course working with NGOs is difficult. Funding is a major problem at this point of time. Funding from local sources is difficult to get. We’re approaching oil companies about that.

Some people have started calling us the Ministry of Nature Iraq. Nevertheless, fundraising is becoming more and more difficult to be honest. Sources of funding are drying. It’s just not just the economic recession in the U.S. and now in Europe. The only source of funds seems to be small grants here and there. For me it’s becoming more difficult to raise funds for the larger projects. As a consequence, we have moved from scientific-based studies that require a lot of fieldwork and expenses to advocacy work and grassroots operations that require a little bit less funding but require more imagination and more groundwork. For the past two years, we’ve had a more active drive to recruit members. It’s not a NGO world because NGOs are a more recent thing due to the invasion of Iraq.

We have done demonstrations. We have done art. We have done festivals to educate people about the plastic bags and the trash and pollutants going into the water. We are planning a very big project where we are going to trace the historic trade routes using the Tigris. The point is we point to the connectivity between the Tigris as a trade route between the mountains of Kurdistan and the Gulf.

We are planning a flotilla next spring from a world heritage site that is going to be submerged as a result of a dam being built by Turkey. We’ll be floating down the river using some traditional watercrafts and crossing the border.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell me about your decision to go back to Iraq after having a successful career as a geotechnical consultant in southern California?

Alwash: I’ve had a few crazy decisions in my life. One of those decisions was to leave Iraq when my career as an engineer was more or less made. I was the top student out of 400 students. All I had to do was join the Ba’ath party to make my career and that was something I couldn’t do. So I left my engineering [education] midway through and started all over again.

I was going to be an academic so that’s why I got my Ph.D. I tried teaching but I hated it. I was probably the lousiest teacher ever. One summer I needed money so I decided to apply my trade. And guess what? I fell in love with the fieldwork. Of course, success is its own punishment.

The minute I started doing that, they brought me into the office. Within two years, I became head of the group. Within five years, I became partner. I recognized the difference between rich and poor is ownership and being an employee. Then when you make enough money, you recognize the American dream is not what life is all about. Having money, having a nice house, having the American dream is nice — I’m not going to knock it — but spiritually it’s empty.

Then the marshes came about and I began hearing about it. In 2003, I came to a point I needed to make a major decision in my life. Do I act like the rest of the Iraqis and bark at the Iraqis inside Iraq and should I come back and do something about it?

That was a tough decision. It took about two months for me to make. The truth is if not for my wife pushing me and telling me to get a grip and I should be confident in myself. I have never tried anything in my life and failed. And if I fail in this, it’s OK. I could come back and be an engineer. The truth is if I hadn’t been a partner in Pacific Soils, I wouldn’t have had enough money to protect my family in case something happens to me. So I went back to Iraq with the idea that I was going to work for a year or a year and a half. And then I would go back to my life in the United States.

Well, it turns out Iraq is addictive. It’s sort of like California in 1849. I’m fond of saying "It’s the Wild West except it’s the East." Not only am I involved in the restoration of the marshes but also the protection of Iraqi cultural heritage. I had a chance to be a founding member of the American University in Baghdad. I’ve truly been involved in a series of once-in-a lifetime projects that no man and no person should have the right to expect, not alone get. I’m just amazed that the last nine to ten years have been filled with once-in-a-lifetime projects that have been fantastic.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is the future of Nature Iraq?

Alwash: We still have funding for the next couple of years. I have set money aside and invested for them. We have set up a tax-exempt charity called Nature Iraq Foundation to raise money from the Gates Foundation and places like that. We have the flotilla project that we’re raising money for. My job is spreading seeds. Eventually, those seeds become a bush. Every now and then it becomes a tree. So you never know.