Azzam Alwash grew up surrounded by Iraq’s marshes, a vast ecosystem that is thought to have harbored the first organized farmers. These marshes were more than just a haven for indigenous Marsh Arabs—they were also excellent hiding places during wartime. So during his long reign, Saddam Hussein systematically drained the swamplands, and by the year 2000, 90% of them were dried up.
Alwash, one of six winners of this year’s $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, lived in Southern California while all this was happening. As a partner in a civil engineering company with a wife and two daughters, he lived an ostensibly happy life. But the destruction of the marshes called him back. "To let go of that way of life was a huge risk," he admits.
But in 2003, Alwash left everything behind in California and returned to Iraq, where he found dried-out desert in place of the marshlands. Alwash arrived with no plan on how he might save the marshes (though his skills as a civil engineer would certainly come in handy), but he did have one big advantage: his father was head of the local irrigation department in the 1960s. "[His] name opened many doors," he says.
In 2004, Alwash founded Nature Iraq, the country’s first—and only—environmental nonprofit. Despite uninterested politicians and terror threats, the organization has made inroads in marsh restoration. Today, nearly half of the original marshlands in the country have been restored, and they’re about to become a national park.
For many environmentalists, this would have been enough of a victory to call it quits and return to the relative comfort and safety of California. But Alwash, who recently stepped down as CEO of Nature Iraq ("I want it to move to the next generation of Iraqi conservationists," he says), is staying in his native country to work on an even more ambitious project.
While the marshes are healing under Nature Iraq’s leadership, the country’s water availability is being threatened by a series of dams recently built at the border of Turkey and Syria. As a result of the new dams, the flow of water through the marshes is declining each year—and it will only get worse as more dams are constructed. "My next challenge is to prevent the next war in the Middle East from being about water," says Alwash. "If Iraq does nothing to improve irrigation standards, agriculture is going to die in the place where it started."
Preventing a water shortage will require a major political feat: getting the governments of Iraq, Syria and Turkey to collaborate on water policy. Alwash says that the Goldman Prize has given him inspiration—an "extra kick" to make it happen. That, and a boost in credibility in the eyes of government officials.
"If we succeed in creating economic ties [between the countries], it’s going to be too difficult to go to war. Borders disappear when ties are strong," he says.