Marshlands in southern Iraq once filled the landscape with lush reed beds, water buffalo, lions, foxes and otters. Settled by Mesopotamians in the 5th century BC, it is known as the site of the original Garden of Eden. Just 20 years ago, it was home to what seemed to be an environmental miracle — in the midst of a desert, was an oasis of aquatic life that was larger than the Everglades.

A Shiite uprising in the area, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers divide into channels, enraged Saddam Hussein, who drained and poisoned the wetlands in retaliation in the early 1990s. Today, as Spiegel Online reports, one Iraqi-U.S. citizen has made it his mission to restore the marshland.

Azzam Alwash, 52, is an engineer who came to America decades ago. With a wife, two daughters, and a home in Fullerton, Calif., Alwash returned to his native Iraq in 2003 to witness the devastation of the marshland, a treasured spot of his childhood. The lush eco-wonderland that had graced the area for thousands of years had been destroyed.

The people of the marshland, known as the Madan, backed a Shiite rebellion against Hussein. In retaliation, thousands were murdered, their homes burned, and the waters drained. What water was left was poisoned or filled with land mines. Half a million people fled to refugee camps. Today, only a few thousand remain in the area, plagued by poverty and political instability.

Now, efforts are being made to restore the once magnificent marshland. Alwash has founded Nature Iraq, the country’s only environmental organization. Amidst extreme danger to his life — land mines still dot the land and Alwash travels the marshland under armed guard — he works to restore the wetlands. The area is close to the conflict zone, as Basra is only 37 miles away. Since the project launched, dozens of employees have died. As Alwash explains, detonating bombs are common. According to Alwash, "As long as you are at least 100 meters (about 330 feet) away, it's just part of daily life."

Despite bombs and threat of unregulated oil drilling, the efforts — which Alwash and others call “Eden Again” — are starting to pay off. One third of the original marsh areas are covered with water and people are returning home. Experts are restoring native plants and animals while working to clean up the tainted soils.

Meanwhile, Alwash remains hopeful. As he told reporters, "The first people to come will be the ornithologists. Then the people who are interested in archaeology, in the ancient cities of Ur and Uruk. And then the eco-tourists … I don’t let my dreams be constrained by reality.”

For further reading:

Environmentalist fights to restore Iraqi marshlands known as biblical Garden of Eden
One U.S.-Iraqi citizen hopes to replenish the unique wetlands in southern Iraq destroyed by Saddam Hussein.