‘Garden of Eden’ returns to life as Mesopotamian marshlands are officially recognised as Iraq’s first national park

Despite the ongoing violence and instability in the country, Iraq’s cabinet has managed to approve the creation of the nation’s very first national park.

Approving the project last week, Iraq’s Council of Ministers took a momentous step towards protecting the historic Mesopotamian marshes in the south of the country for future generations.

“With this action, Iraq has acted to preserve the cradle of civilisation,” said Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi engineer and environmentalist, who gave up a comfortable life in California to help restore these unique wetlands and win government protection for them.

“We’ve worked for more than ten years to make this happen – and we still have a lot of work ahead – but we now celebrate an important milestone in the history of Iraq,” he told Positive News.

The Mesopotamian marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, once the third largest wetlands area in the world, are said by Biblical scholars to be the site of the Garden of Eden, the birthplace of civilisation.

It was once a thriving oasis of aquatic life filled with lush reed beds, water buffalo and birds – twice the size of the Florida Everglades and in the middle of a desert. And it was the home of the indigenous Ma’dan Marsh Arabs, direct descendants of the ancient Sumerians.

But in the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein wiped out the ancient marshlands in retaliation against Shia Muslim rebels who had staged an uprising after the first Gulf war and fled there for refuge. He built massive canals that drained all the marshes’ water, then set fire to the reeds and villages, turning the whole area into a vast salt-crusted desert. The United Nations Environment Programme called this action the worst environmental disaster of the last century.

“I expect every self-respecting birder to come to Iraq to complete their life list”

When Saddam’s regime fell, Alwash returned to Iraq and founded the environmental NGO, Nature Iraq, to try to restore the marshes. Over the past decade, he has worked with local people and the government, surveying the region and developing a master plan to resurrect the area.

Now, although greatly changed, the marshes have been re-flooded in many areas and are starting to flourish again. Reed beds, birds, fish, water buffalo and the Ma’dan have returned.

Alwash, who won the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to restore the wetlands, said he got the idea of turning them into a national park while visiting Yosemite and other national parks in the west of the United States.

“The first task was of course the re-flooding of the marshes and making sure they thrive again, but just as importantly was that the Marsh Arabs wanted to come back, and that, when they came back, they would have a decent way of life.”

Nature Iraq envisions the national park providing both a refuge for Iraq’s marshland biodiversity and a sustainable boost to the local economy through eco-tourism and development projects that bring social benefit.

“As for visitors, the first ones, I am hoping, will be the 20,000 oil field workers in the south of Iraq. Even at $10 per person, that should be a huge boost to the local economy. As stability in Iraq increases and facilities start being built to accommodate visitors, I expect every self-respecting birder to come to Iraq to complete their life list,” said Alwash.

The bigger barrier to successful restoration, however, is the hydro-politics of the region. Syria, Turkey and Iran, Iraq’s upstream neighbours, are increasingly restricting the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates. A chain of 30 dams (most already completed) along the Turkey-Syria border are reducing the flow of water in Iraq and threatening the marshes’ survival.

“By setting the national park, Iraq commits to dedicate a portion of its increasingly limited water resources to keeping the marshes alive and thriving. Furthermore, it is a good argument in negotiations with Turkey to dedicate special spring releases for environmental preservation,” said Alwash.

But ultimately, the marshes can only be protected if there is an international agreement on water-sharing, he added. “The preservation of the marshes is not only Iraq’s duty: it is the world’s duty. This is the cradle of civilisation. This is where agriculture started. This is where writing was invented. This is where Abraham was born.”

Photo title: Azzam Alwash (right) in the Mesopotamian marshlands

Photo credit: © Goldman Environmental Prize