It took nearly a decade’s worth of work, but Iraq finally has its first national park: the Central Marshes of Iraq, a 1,000 square kilometer site filled with marshlands that had previously been systematically drained by Saddam Hussein because of their usefulness as a hiding place during wartime. The Iraqi government doesn’t deserve all the credit for this feat, though its cooperation was essential. Iraq’s park can largely be credited to Nature Iraq, an environmental group founded by Azzam Alwash, who recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize.
In 2006, Alwash began the process of working with the government to select a location for the national park. “We had come up with a plan, and then some people started saying that unless we’re sure water is regulated, they won’t go through effort. We spent two years on a construction management plan for water, and then there was fight between the Ministries of Water Resources and Environment on who is going to control this,” he explains. “It was an incredible nightmare of bureaucracy and red tape and egos.”
That nightmare is over, and Alwash–a former Southern Californian who once lived a comfortable life as a partner in a civil engineering company–believes that the process has carved a pathway for other parks to be built in the future. He already has a plan for 10 national parks that encompass about 17% of the land mass of Iraq, including mountain ranges, steppes, and other wetlands. And by the end of the year, Nature Iraq will publish a final version of a paper looking at the key biodiversity areas of the country, which is a hotbed of wildlife and diverse landscapes.
“The blueprint is now done, and the next one is going to be easier as long as we include everybody at the table,” he says. “The problem I see in the future of Iraq is the opaqueness of the political process.”
Now that the the Central Marshes of Iraq has been designated as a national park, the locals will have to adjust. “The unspoken truth is that the marshes are overstressed. People who have come back to live on the marshes are overfishing. The people are not giving nature enough space to heal herself,” says Alwash. He hopes that ecotourism will create new sources of income, turning hunters and fishers into nature guides. A larger infrastructure of hotels and motels could also generate cash.
Alwash admits that not all the locals are excited about the park, or even understand exactly what it is. “It will come down to education,” he says.
While Alwash still has a day-to-day role in Nature Iraq, he recently stepped down as CEO and is now focusing most of his energy on water issues (“My next challenge is to prevent the next war in the Middle East from being about water,” he told Co.Exist in an interview earlier this year). But he’s clearly not giving up on Nature Iraq’s national park missions.