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A Peaceful Invasion of Iraq

Insights + Opinion

Pete Nichols

Waterkeeper Helps Sets Up Program Where Saddam Destoyed Vital Wetland

In the fall of 2010, a sleepless night landed me in front of my computer, working as I listened to the radio. The BBC program I had turned to included a report on wetland restoration, which was so inspiring that I realized that I wasn’t going back to sleep.  What shook me completely awake was the location of the project: Iraq.

These wetlands on the banks of the Euphrates River in Nasriyah had been drained under Saddam Hussein’s rule to create a military barrier, an undertaking that essentially wiped out one of the country’s most biologically diverse and historically rich areas. Now, I heard, a native of that area named Azzam Alwash was not only working to re-establish the natural environment, but also promoting eco-tourism along the Tigris River. To me, he sounded like a Waterkeeper.

Environmentalism and eco-tourism in Iraq aren't things we generally hear about, and the uniqueness of Alwash’s story convinced me to do something to encourage and support the effort. At the time, as Humboldt Baykeeper in Northern California and a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance board of directors, I felt this was a rare moment for connecting a person who could use some help and an organization that had the help to offer: Waterkeeper Alliance.  So I tracked Alwash down on Facebook and began to discuss with him the possibility of establishing a Waterkeeper program in Iraq, which would be the first of its kind in the Middle East.

Working together, Waterkeeper members, Azzam and his very sophisticated staff at Nature Iraq developed the proposal for the Iraqi Upper Tigris River Waterkeeper. It was quickly approved, and its successful launch required only a site visit by a Waterkeeper board member to ascertain that the new program contained everything necessary to flourish.  In April 2011, I made the trek to that war-torn country most Americans view as barren and dangerous.

Although Kurdistan in northern Iraq is relatively quite safe, I was a bit nervous as well as excited when I arrived there. But I found little anti-American sentiment and increasing tourism. I then became eager to see the parts of Iraq not usually shown on national news programs: the mountains and rivers, the “cradle of civilization” between the Tigris and Euphrates.

Iraq faces many significant and daunting issues: poor water-quality and infrastructure, lack of planning for a democracy emerging under the undoubted influence of ‘westernization’. Quantity of water is also a problem. The headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates are located in Turkey, which has invested heavily in dams to stem the flow of the rivers as they enter Iraq. These legendary waterways provide a perfect setting for a Waterkeeper program.

As do the wetlands where Saddam’s destruction ruined thousands of people's lives, and where Azzam, Nature Iraq and Upper Tigris Waterkeeper Nabil Musa are relentlessly engaged in the job of restoration. They have seized the right moment to rebuild and protect this great natural resource, and the creation of Upper Tigris Waterkeeper couldn’t be better timed.

Over the next 10 years, Iraqi citizens will have the chance to develop and frame environmental regulations, and the Upper Tigris Waterkeeper and Nature Iraq are in a position to establish an environmental voice early in their emerging democracy. Creating an advocacy program such as theirs will help ensure that environmentalists have a seat at the table when relevant laws and policies are developed.

I hope to return to Iraq soon to work further with Azzam and the Upper Tigris Waterkeeper staff. When I returned to the U.S., I helped to start a philanthropic vehicle, the Nature Iraq Foundation, to raise funds for environmental work throughout the region. The Foundation’s mission is to tackle the many environmental issues that will inevitably face Iraq in the decades to come, including such critical steps as educating the Iraqi people about the value of clean water, arranging a ‘water summit’ with Turkey to discuss water-quantity issues, implementing water-conservation practices, and developing infrastructure to block the flow of pollutants, from raw sewage to toxics.

As I reflect on the adventurous and inspirational work of Azzam and his colleagues to reclaim nature from the awful legacy of a tyrant, I really believe that there is great hope for the environment of Iraq. I see great potential for additional Waterkeeper programs along the Euphrates and other rivers in Iraq—and throughout the Middle East.

Protecting and restoring the waters that in legend nurtured the Garden of Eden, that enabled the rise of agriculture and the invention of the wheel, and formed the ancient base of civilization, is a challenge ideally suited for a Waterkeeper, and I am proud to help move that vision forward.

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Reprinted with permission from Waterkeeper Magazine. To read the winter issue of the Waterkeeper Magazine, click here.

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