Twenty years after Saddam Hussein drained the marshes of southern Iraq, the water and the people are coming back. Journalist Jane Arraf traveled to the historic area for America Tonight.
On just a few feet of water in southern Iraq, the world's first civilization was born.
Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American engineer, knew these wetlands and their importance as a boy and he's determined to see them restored.
"On the edge of these marshes is where civilization started,” Alwash said. “This is where writing was invented. This is where agriculture was first started. This is where the wheel was invented. This is where Abraham was born. So, in a sense, it doesn't belong to Iraq. It belongs to the rest of the world."
In the 1990s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein changed the landscape by draining these marshes and driving out the inhabitants. In one of the biggest engineering projects of the past century, Hussein had dirt barriers constructed all along the Euphrates River to hold back the water. This was done to prevent infiltration from neighboring Iran and to punish people here for a failed uprising against him.
Huge dams in neighboring Turkey also stopped the seasonal floods that had created an ecosystem thousands of years old.
Azzam left Iraq in the late 1970s and built a career as a soil and environmental engineering consultant in California. But in 2003, he returned and started Nature Iraq. Azzam and his colleague Jassim al-Asadi used their engineering skills to help break embankments built by the Hussein regime along the Euphrates River and bring the water flooding back.
When Hussein fell in 2003, the locals and Nature Iraq cooperated to open a dike, al-Asadi said. But there are still environmental challenges.
The marshes are close to Iran, which controls some of the water flow. Even worse from an environmental point of view, there's oil under the marshes waiting to be tapped. But the main worry is getting enough water to keep the marshes alive.
"We have less water than we used to do – we have worse quality than we used to do and we have increasing demands – be it agriculture, be it industrial be it domestic and as it stands before the marshes were declared a national park it was basically if we have water that's extra we'll give it to the marshes,” Azzam said. “At this point in time with the Iraqi government declaring it a national park it has a legitimate demand to sit at the table and ask for a legitimate share of the water."
Along with the water, Azzam would like to see people flowing back here as well.
"Imagine you're a birder and you come here. We could build this into a nice bird-watching center,” he said. “You can see as far as the horizon. Look at this! It's gorgeous!"
Life in the marshes
The channels Alwash and al-Asadi reopened to the Euphrates have reflooded more than half of the marshes since 2003. There's dry land along the remaining embankments. But just across the road where the water has returned, communities are coming back to life.
Kareem Aoun Aboud came back a few months ago along with a few dozen other families.
He told Alwash they moved back when the heard the water had returned. On his tiny island is the frame of a mutheef, a reed guesthouse that has had the same design for 3,000 years.
If the weather holds, it can be built in just a day. The guesthouse will be used by the community for meetings and to host visitors from other provinces.
Kareem said he came back because he missed the lifestyle.
His wife, Kathamia, didn't. Here, she struggles to take care of the children. They don't go to school because it's too far away. It was better in the town, where they had everything, she said.
As the water level rises and becomes less salty, plants like tamarisk are replaced by the reeds that provide food for the livestock as well as shelter for the people who live here.
This family moved back from the town a year ago when the water came back. Mutlaq Hussein buys and sells water buffalo. Like most people here, the family also sells the milk.
People here live lightly on the land. Almost all the houses are made of reeds. The very islands they're built on are also made of reeds and dirt. Reeds also provide fuel for cooking fires.
Zaineb, one of Mutlaq's two wives, spends much of the day keeping his 11 children fed. Lunch is bread and fried fish, the same thing they eat every day.
For fishermen, their work is painstaking but a few pounds of small fish will bring in enough to live on for the day.
Most of the manual labor – harvesting the reeds from boats and transporting to sell – is done by women and girls.
"These people are not ‘reed-huggers’ as it were,” Alwash said. “These people want the marshes restored because it's a way of life. It's a way they can make a living without having an education. They can make a living without having to live in the city. They can go out to the marsh, harvest enough reeds, sell it and make a couple of bucks and they can live for the day. They can fish for a whole day and make money. They can hunt birds. It's about making a living from nature. Frankly, that's the best kid of restoration."
Hopes for ecotourism
Now that there's enough water, the marshes are once again a stop on the migratory path for birds coming from Africa.
"It's like the beginning of the migration,” Alwash said. “In about a month, if you come here you'll probably see in the thousands if not the tens of thousands."
The ducks started coming back four years ago.
"We were like 'Oh my God what is this?'" Alwash said. "It was like the black clouds in the sky of my youth. It was incredible."
The reeds are also full of kingfisher birds that hover and dive bombs for prey.
On the edge of the marshes, Nature Iraq has built a reed guesthouse as the beginning of what Alwash hopes will be ecotourism here. The same design is on clay tablets from ancient Sumerian times. It's relatively cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Alwash hopes to attract foreign workers from surrounding oil fields who might come for a weekend of fishing or bird-hunting.
"My idea is basically I wanted the locals to understand that the regular methods of building are more suited to the environment. That was goal one," Alwash said. "Goal two was basically to create a place for tourists to come enjoy the culture. Have a mixture of modernity and tradition. It's a rest house ecotourism hotel and it's the nucleus hopefully for an ecotourism center."
At Kareem’s place, just after dawn, the neighbors come to finish the guest house. Some of them barely remember the old songs but they give it a try. Their chant says they're all brothers - willing to help each other.
In just an hour, the bundles of reeds are tied and raised, providing the tension for a perfect arch.
It will be covered with more reeds - awaiting the guests and providing a link to thousands of years of civilization.