The Engineer-Turned-Activist Who Reversed One of World's Largest Environmental Disasters

 Azzam Alwash 3

When he picked up and left his life behind to dive into a war-torn country, Azzam Alwash did not intend this as an act of valor, but viewed it as more of a temporary relocation in pursuit of his passion. The U.S.-based engineer took a leap of faith into Iraq in 2003, motivated by his determination to revert Saddam Hussein’s destruction of the Mesopotamia Marshes, an environmental treasure that stores many of Alwash’s childhood memories.

“I thought it was going to be a two-year project. This is how naïve I was,” Alwash said. “Well it turns out it’s not a multi-year project. It’s multi-decadal. Possibly a multi-generational project.”

Ten years later, Alwash received a phone call that validated the sacrifices he made to restore the Mesopotamia Marshes, which are fed by the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. When he was told he would be receiving  $150,000 along with the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize for his work restoring the wetlands, he thought a friend was pulling a prank. He laughs when he admits he didn’t know what the so-called “green Oscar” was. But now, as a winner of “the world's largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists” and featured on Link TV series “The New Environmentalists,” he reflects on the importance of this milestone.

“It gave me a lot of leverage inside Iraq,” Alwash said. “All of a sudden, I’m not just some crying guy talking about the marshes and the environment in the middle of a civil war… It gave me legitimacy.”

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Although the award gained him recognition, the legitimacy of Alwash’s work defending Iraq’s environment speaks for itself. Growing up, Alwash spent a lot of time in the marshes when his father was the head of the irrigation department. When Hussein rose to power, Alwash moved to the U.S., where he earned several degrees and established a family in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Hussein was draining and poisoning the marshes to push out the Shiite Arabs who were hiding in the area. When the Hussein regime fell, Alwash decided it was time to return to Iraq to restore the country's environmental integrity.

Alwash founded the nonprofit Nature Iraq to develop a master plan to restore the marshes. He also doubled as political liaison to mobilize the farmers who once depended on this land and convince government agencies to stand behind this monumental project. Now, with more than half of the original area flooded again, the Sumerian people are returning to the land they have inhabited and farmed on for thousands of years. Another big win for Alwash was for Iraq to declare the Mesopotania Marshes as the country’s first national park.

Although he confidently tells stories of his successes, by no means has his work been easy. Among his many challenges was the kidnapping of five of his employees. He kept a cool head and analyzed the best course of action, as he has done every time when facing unprecedented conflict in the past 13 years.

“If you pay for ransom once, you might as well stop working,” Alwash said. “Because everyone identifies you in the field as, ‘Hey here goes tomorrow’s paycheck.’”

Alwash refused to pay the $250,000 demanded by kidnappers. He simply didn’t have it. Negotiators brought their ransom down to $500 per person. The families paid it, the prisoners were released, and Alwash reimbursed them in due time.

“It’s difficult what I have had to do to survive and to succeed,” he said. “You just come up with different alternatives.”

Alwash is only getting started. As he said, this could be a multi-generational concept. For example, although the marshes were declared a national park, Iraq’s environment continues to struggle with other priorities, including economic oil dependency and the fight with ISIL.

“Like all decisions in Iraq, they make a decision but there’s no follow-up,” he said. “As long as it’s on paper, there will come a time when we’ll be able to work with, say, oil companies.”

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He will continue leveraging his political and negotiation skills to work with neighboring countries and oil companies to advocate for the marshes, which are located on one of the biggest oil reserves in the world.

“One way or another oil’s going to be exploited and it’s going to be extracted,” he said. “You can demonstrate and chain yourself to the gates… Or you can decide to work with the [international oil companies] to effect positive change.”

His next self-assignment? Alwash envisions a future in which countries collaborate in a more productive resource exchange. He is advocating against the comprehensive effects of large dams and their impact on nature. As they are currently planned, a chain of 23 dams upstream of the Mesopotamian Marshes along the Turkey-Syria border would significantly reduce water flow into Iraq, again changing the natural flow of the annual floods that he has worked so hard to restore.

“We can find a way to solve it,” he said confidently. “But now I have to convince people in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria to work together to manage the basin."

Looking back on the “hardest decision” he’s ever made when moving to Iraq, he takes his biggest losses into account.

“Who’s crazy enough to leave two young kids, a wife, a job that made me a quarter-million dollars a year?” he said.

He gives all credit to his ex-wife, who made the decision for him when she encouraged him to pursue his passion and have faith. Eventually, the passion he fell into cost him his marriage. But this proved to be an example of his philosophy, that everything in life happens for a reason.

“It’s been an incredible 13 years,” Alwash says. “I’m a lucky son of a bitch.”

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