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NATURE: Braving Iraq

Airs Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 8 p.m. & Sunday, March 31 at 4 p.m. on KPBS TV

Credit: Courtesy of Stephen Foote

Above: Photo of a 50mm round casing in the desert area that was previously the Mesopotamian Marshes, once the richest wildlife habitat in the Middle East. In the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein destroyed the Mesopotamian Marshes when its inhabitants rebelled against him.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, news about the fate and future of this Middle Eastern country has been at the forefront of our national consciousness, making an impact on our daily lives, appearing in every newspaper and news program, the subject of endless numbers of personal and political discussions. But if you think you’ve heard every imaginable story about life within Iraqi borders, think again.

There is at least one major element in this geopolitical drama that the American media has mostly overlooked, and it lies at the cross section of regional politics and the natural environment. "Nature: Braving Iraq" unravels this tale about what was once one of the richest and most important wetlands in the world – from its virtual destruction by a ruthless dictator to its exciting, new prospects for a miraculous recovery.

As recently as the 1980’s, Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes were reminiscent of the Garden of Eden – indeed, many biblical scholars believe they are one and the same. Fed by the combined waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, this enormous marshland of over 6,000 square miles dominated southern Iraq.

For more than 7,000 years, these wetlands provided a bountiful home for both wildlife and humans. A large population of indigenous people, the Ma’dan Tribes known as Marsh Arabs, had thrived there for centuries.

But in the 1990’s, due to political conflict, Saddam Hussein attempted to eradicate them – not through systematic extermination, but by destroying the marshes on which they depended for survival. Massive canals were dug, diverting river water away from the wetlands and towards the Arabian Gulf.

Huge embankments were built to prevent water from entering the marshes. What had been a green paradise twice the size of the Everglades shrank to less than ten percent of its original size. Most of it was transformed into a parched, lifeless desert. The wildlife and the people were forced to leave.

But the story did not end there. Due to the imagination and the efforts of a coalition of individuals, restoration of the marshes has become more than a dream. Civil strife, serious security incidents and droughts make for slow progress, but various groups are chipping away at the embankments, trying to successfully flood the marshes once again.

Azzam Alwash, an engineer raised on the banks of the Euphrates, left Iraq for America to escape from Saddam’s regime, but he has returned to undertake one of the largest habitat recreation projects in the world.

Filmmakers David Johnson and Stephen Foote follow Azzam, chronicling his efforts to breathe new life into the green paradise he remembers from his childhood, while also navigating the inherent dangers of working in a dangerous and politically volatile region.

This program originally aired in 2010.

Video Excerpt: Nature: Braving Iraq: Remembering the Marshes

Engineer Azzam Alwash recalls his childhood memories of the Mesopotamian marshes, and his feelings upon his return to Iraq when the area had been reduced to an empty desert. "Braving Iraq" unravels the tale of what was one of the richest and most important wetlands in the world -- from its virtual destruction by a ruthless dictator to its exciting, new prospects for a miraculous recovery.

Full Episode: Nature: Braving Iraq

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Watch Braving Iraq on PBS. See more from Nature.

In the 1990s, the Mesopotamian Marshes were virtually destroyed by Saddam Hussein, but Azzam Alwash is making an extraordinary effort to return life to the green paradise he remembers from his childhood. For more about this film, visit the NATURE website.

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