Restoring Eden

Restoring Eden

In the early 1990s Saddam Hussein drained what biblical scholars believe to be the Garden of Eden. With the water went the people, known as the Ma’dan, and their way of life. Now, Iraqi-American hydraulic engineer Dr. Azzam Alwash and his organization Nature Iraq, are working with the Ma’dan to restore the marshes of southern Iraq, in a project Alwash calls “Eden Again." He hopes the exiled people will come back as water and wildlife return to what had been turned into a desert, according to a segment on the PBS show, Nature.

For thousands of years the Ma’dan called the marshes home. They lived on floating islands made of reeds that grew in the marshes. They caught fish, hunted birds, and kept water buffalo, says an article from Spiegel Online. Without water this life wasn’t possible and the Ma’dan people either migrated to the city or suffered in poverty.

Alwash returned to the marshes in 2003 after Hussein fled from power. He found that those that had remained in the area had already begun to dig through the man-made embankments that diverted the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers away from the marshes, he explained in a recent NPR interview. Flash forward seven years and the Ma’dan have destroyed up to 98 percent of the embankments, Alwash tells the Guardian. Their motivations more economic, than anything else.

Not because they are tree-huggers or bird-lovers, but because it's a source of economic income to them, because they can harvest reeds and sell them. They can fish and feed a family or sell them to earn extra income.

Hundreds of thousands of Ma’dan people who have been living in urban exile are now used to many aspects of modern life, Alwash explains in another article in the Guardian. They’ve become familiar with electricity, television, air-conditioning and wifi. But Alwash sees no reason why comforts such as these can’t be incorporated into the traditional Ma’dan way of life. Once services are in place Alwash anticipates a flood of “reverse migration.”

Right now, the biggest stressors to the marshes are ongoing drought and hydro-dams in Iraq's northern neighbor, Turkey. In the NPR interview Alwash explains that the drought has reduced the marshes to about 35 percent of their former size. But Alwash is confident that 75 percent of the marshes can be restored despite the drought and dams in Turkey.

When Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the early 1990s he attempted to turn a paradise into a desert and wipe one of the oldest civilizations on earth off the face of the earth itself. He nearly succeeded. But with the help of Dr. Azzam Alwash and Nature Iraq, the Ma’dan have proved the resilient force that nature and humanity are, as a desert becomes Eden again.

Iraqi photographer Sate Al Abbasi's beautiful shots of Ma'dan people at home in the marshes can be viewed in the slideshow below."

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