The Poison Triangle

Photos by Nik Wheeler

Azzam and Suzie Alwash have big plans, and on the day I visited them at their home in Fullerton, they had misplaced some of them. “Did you call the airport?” “Yes. We have to call them back later.” “How could I leave all the maps on the plane?” “Were they in the overhead bin?” Suzie turned to me: “Those maps were from the National Security Council, and they were sort of half-classified: We could use them, but not show them to anyone. They’re probably no longer sensitive, but we certainly weren’t supposed to leave them on Jet Blue.”

The maps they’re missing are big: 2-by-3-foot views of Iraq, mostly details of the southern part of the country, where, until recently, there once ranged a vast wetlands ecosystem considerably larger than the Everglades. In the past two decades, Saddam Hussein systematically destroyed these marshes, mostly as a punitive assault against the Shiite inhabitants of the area, who took part in the 1991 uprising against Hussein. With regime change under way, Azzam hopes to realize a goal he’s nurtured for years — to return to his homeland and revive one of the world’s most important wetlands.

That’s also the mission statement of Eden Again, an organization Azzam founded in 2001 to study the technical aspects of such a restoration. It was on a trip to Washington, D.C., representing Eden Again in meetings with officials at the State and Defense departments that he brought the maps. They were forgotten on the return flight. It’s an understandable oversight, as Azzam is as busy as he’s ever been, caught in a cyclone of preparations for a vital field survey of the marsh area to begin in early June. “I’m sure they’ll find them,” Azzam said as he sat down at the dining table. Then he joked: “I just hope they don’t look at me funny when a guy named Azzam shows up at the airport looking for NSC documents.”


Luckily, Azzam and Suzie had plenty of other maps around from earlier meetings. “Here is one from the ’70s,” said Suzie. She held a laminated, mounted Landsat image showing a dense patchwork of vegetation and water, stretching over thousands of square miles. This was the original extent of the Mesopotamian marshes, the enormous inland delta that had been the anchor of the Fertile Crescent and the birthplace of Western civilization.

Ancient lifestyle ruined in the late 1980s(Photos by Nik Wheeler) “And this one is the year 2000. As you can see . . .” Now flat brown, the area appears as bare earth, totally empty except for the canals, dikes, oil fields and dried lakes that evidenced the scale and technique of its ruin. The transformation is remarkable. Remember the brown clouds kicked up by the dust storms that caught U.S. troops during the war? “That entire area was under water not too long ago,” said Suzie. And those images of the Marines entering Nasiriyah — so quick and thorough was the destruction that only a decade ago those soldiers would have been standing in 10-foot-high reed beds stretching hundreds of miles.

From that same spot outside Nasiriyah, if you headed a short distance downriver along the Euphrates, found the Al Gharraf River, and then followed it north a ways, you would reach its point of departure from the Tigris and, on those intersecting banks, a city called Kut. This is where Azzam grew up. It’s a midsize city, and an important agricultural marketplace. His father was an irrigation engineer, and Azzam used to accompany him on trips into the marshes to arbitrate local water disputes. They also sometimes hunted there. “My earliest memory is sitting on one of these long, narrow boats, the kind with a canopy in the center,” Azzam recounted. “I’d hang over the side, watching the water go by, looking at the ducks. We’d navigate through these small passages between the tall reeds. And when you came out into an opening, there’d be a fresh breeze, and you’d find the marsh dwellers, living deep inside, on artificial islands made of reeds.”

Azzam left Iraq in 1978, at age 19, to avoid having to join the Ba’ath party. He continued his studies in civil engineering in the United States, and wound up at the University of Southern California, where he met his wife, Suzie. They have two daughters, Hannah and Norah. In 1994, the Alwashes heard the first reports about the fate of the marshes, and they wanted to help. “But then, you know, life happens and we had her” — Suzie pointed at Norah, who was doing her homework beside us at the table — “and so the idea sat on the shelf for a while.”

Then, last spring, the State Department made a $200,000 grant for wetlands restoration to the Iraq Foundation, under whose aegis Eden Again was formed, and suddenly Azzam and Suzie had money to convene experts, do a little hiring and conduct a proper feasibility study. And although the political perspectives on the war varied widely among the project’s members (Americans mostly opposed; Iraqis mostly favored), all were agreed that a new government in Iraq meant a new chance for the marshes.

It’s a prospect as daunting as it is exciting. “We have no idea what’s really there,” explained Azzam. Since 1979, no data have been published on the state of the marshes, and no outside scientist has been allowed to visit. They’re flying blind, or, as Suzie likes to say, “operating in a data-free environment.” As striking as satellite imagery can be, you need physical samples to tell you about things like the toxicity of the soil or how much water flow might be available.

“We need information,” explains Azzam, laughing to himself at the staggering amount of information he means by this. Environmental restoration on this scale is unprecedented, and Azzam knows Eden Again has to be extremely cautious, because rash measures could make it worse. To simply undo the Hussein-era dikes and dams,for example, and indiscriminately re-flood the wetlands could be a disaster. When a body of water stagnates and then evaporates, it leaves a layer of salt and whatever other chemicals it might contain on the surface. “Just putting water back into a salt pan would create a supersaline solution that would bleach whatever it touched downstream,” Azzam explained.

The official report published by Eden Again last month posits some hopeful restoration scenarios, but acknowledges that the first order of business is to assess, take many samples, and from there build a specific plan to re-introduce water to a test area by the start of the autumn floods this November. “There are so many questions,” Azzam said, preparing, as only technical specialists can, to enumerate them: “What is the topography? What animals are left? Where are the mines? What pollutants are there? Selenium would be a problem. Is the soil too acidic?” There is even a scenario where successive water releases could create a wash of sulfuric acid. “All of this we have to answer,” Azzam ruminated, “just to be able to ask, ‘Now, where do we begin?’”


The headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are in Turkey. The Tigris starts 15,000 feet up the slope of Mount Ararat, flows south past a little strip of Syrian border and then on into Iraq. Nearby, the Euphrates follows suit, taking a more southern path and cutting through Syria proper. They meet up a couple of thousand miles away, southeast of Baghdad, at the other end of the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial plain, where they break apart, fanning out into a complex of distributaries that feed the wetlands and an adjacent agricultural region.

It was here that the Sumerians invented irrigation and started growing barley and wheat. And where writing first appeared — one of the earliest examples of which was a recipe for beer made from Sumerian barley and dedicated to the beer goddess Ninkasi. It’s also the place where Gilgamesh roamed; where Abraham was born; where the inspiration for the Garden of Eden may have originated. What seems like ancient history was preserved for millennia, in situ, by the Ma’dan, a tribe that maintained the traditional culture of the marshes. The vaulted reed architecture of contemporary Ma’dan villages is identical to those carved in bas-relief on 5,000-year-old Sumerian tablets. Same thing with the mash’hoof, the canoes used to traverse the waters: The ones depicted in clay and manned by those guys with the curly beards that we’re familiar with from Mesopotamian architecture are the very same as those in recent photos of the Ma’dan. Theirs, incredibly, is an unbroken cultural heritage from the days of ancient Sumer.

“It is like no place else,” said Ramadan Albadran, a collaborator on Eden Again who grew up in the marshes, near the Ma’dan. He described his life there, living in a reed house, fishing, hunting boar, picking figs, apples and apricots from trees right outside the windows, sleeping on the roof in the summertime. He described how once one of his relatives had the flu, and within a few hours there were a dozen well-wishers at his side, neighbors, friends, all of whom had made the trip by boat. “In the marsh, there is a saying,” Ramadan said. “‘Here you understand the difference between modernized and civilized.’ It’s a place where you have everything you need. It really is Eden.”

Or so it was. In a few short years, the marsh and its culture have all but disappeared. The first major insult to the marshes was in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. One section of the marsh sits on the border, and each side cleared large swaths to create staging grounds for attacks. But the fatal blow came in the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein launched a vicious campaign against the entire region, land and people alike.

When Hussein gave orders to drain the swamp, it wasn’t meant as a metaphor. His chief weapon was hydro-engineering: Teams began working nonstop to build a network of locks, dikes, earth embankments, and colossal diversionary canals with titles like the Crown of Battles and Fidelity to Our Leader. So much water was re-routed that one canal, the so-called Prosperity River, runs four miles wide. Where water remained, it was poisoned with cyanide. Reed beds were destroyed with napalm. In the end, almost half a million people were displaced or killed. It was, as human-rights observers noted, a startlingly efficient example of ecocide as genocide.


"Tada — maps!” Suzie came in the door with an armful of cylinder cases. She had heard from the airport a few hours before and gone to pick them up. In the meantime, the Alwashes’ friend Ramadan had come by to help Azzam with logistics. Having been in the country more recently and maintaining more contacts there, Ramadan provides help that is vital for Azzam’s coming fieldwork.

They pored over the maps, selecting an itinerary, from Basra, north to the Al Hawizeh marsh on the Iranian border, down toward Nasiriyah, and then back to Basra, perhaps along one of the canals. Ramadan tried to anticipate problems and dangers, and there was a lot of animated conversation, switching between English and Arabic, about Ramadan’s cousins, where to get a boat and who might be in what department at Al Basrah University. One excited exchange in Arabic ended with Ramadan flashing his hands, and concluding in English: “Okay, my friend. I hook you up direct.

“And, by the way, you need a satellite phone.”

“That’s right here on our plan,” Suzie chimed in. She pulled out a napkin covered with lists and boxes and arrows and check marks. There it was written: “satellite phone,” alongside items like “digital camera,” “GPS,” “laptop,” “desert boots” and “vaccinations.”

Yet, they all understand that even perfect preparation won’t smooth the road ahead entirely. Even with the technical issues sorted out and a well-designed rehabilitation strategy in place for November, larger problems loom. Recent dams and development in neighboring countries have already reduced Iraq’s water supply significantly. And it’s a region where politics runs through riverbeds, and Azzam noted that tomorrow Turkey could keep the entire Euphrates all to itself — using only one of its mega-dams. Should enough water flow, the region then faces the poison triangle that afflicts its hydrology: salinization, sedimentation, and contamination, from agricultural and industrial chemicals to “urban effluent,” which is to say raw, untreated sewage from every city upstream along the 10,000 miles of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

That’s the water — “and then there’s oil,” as Azzam wryly remarked. Unfortunately for the marshes, they straddle a massive reserve; Saddam had already developed, in drained marshland (with the help of Russia and France), the second and third largest oil fields in the world. But Azzam has met with oil experts, “and they tell me the drilling can be done with a slight footprint, gradually, from platforms,” he offered hopefully. “They say it’s the most modern method.”

As with the coexistence of wetlands and oil exploitation, Azzam is wildly optimistic about the role of the marshes as a sort of cornerstone of the New Iraq. He suggests that the marshes could provide an opportunity to embark on regional water planning; to modernize the country’s agriculture with a water-saving irrigation system, perhaps imported from — gasp — Israel; and to build an environmental consciousness and constituency for preservation in Iraq, both of which are part of the civil-society institutions that are so important to democracy. Eventually he imagines the marshes as a draw for tourism in a stable, democratic country. And he would be the first customer. “I kayak with my family here in California,” he said, showing me a picture of him with his daughters out on the water one morning. “And I want to bring them to Iraq. I want to take my children to the marshes, like my father took me. That would be wonderful.”


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