Insomnia Leads to Inspiration
Friday, April 29, 2011
by Pete Nichols, Humboldt Baykeeper & Member, Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors
A few months ago, a sleepless night landed me in front of the computer, listening to a BBC Radio program that included a report on wetland restoration. Once I started listening, I realized that I wasn’t going back to sleep. Wetland restoration might not be considered a topic that would grab your attention in the middle of the night, but what shook me completely awake was the location of the work: Iraq.
The wetlands where Azzam Alwash grew up in Nasriyah, on the banks of the Euphrates River, had been drained under Saddam Hussein’s rule to create a military barrier. The cost of that action was that one of the most biologically diverse and historically rich areas in Iraq had been, essentially, wiped out. Now, I heard, Alwash was not only working to reestablish the natural environment, but promoting eco-tourism along the Tigris River. And, he needed and wanted to collaborate.
Ecotourism and environmentalism in Iraq isn't something we generally hear about, and the uniqueness of Alwash’s story convinced me that something must be done to encourage and support the effort. As Humboldt Baykeeper Executive Director and as a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance national board of directors, I felt this was one of those rare moments where a connection was made between a person who could use some help, and a person who had the help to offer. I tracked Alwash down through Facebook and began discussing the possibility of establishing a Waterkeeper program in Iraq, the first of its kind in the Middle East.
To create such a program, someone has to be the Waterkeeper, the primary voice speaking on behalf of the waterway, willing to conduct patrols, to reach out and educate the community, to protect and promote the body of water at hand. Alwash's efforts had positioned him perfectly; Nature Iraq is such a sophisticated organization that the proposal Alwash brought forward was quickly approved. The only thing left to do to successfully launch the program was for a Waterkeeper board member to perform a successful site visit.
The goal of such a visit is to make certain the new program has everything necessary to flourish. So – I set off to visit a country most Americans view as barren, dangerous and war-torn. I couldn’t be more excited to go; the northern part of Iraq is quite safe, with increasing tourism and no anti-American sentiment. I’m looking forward to seeing the parts of Iraq not shown on the national news; the mountains and rivers; the “cradle of civilization” before the war took top billing.
Saddam’s destruction of the wetlands ruined people's lives, and to see Alwash's work to restore the lands upon which he was raised is a unique opportunity. This trip, indeed the confluence of events that made creation of Upper Tigris Riverkeeper possible, couldn’t be better timed. The moment to get involved in protecting and rebuilding Iraq’s natural resources is now.
Over the next 10 years, Iraqi citizens will have the chance to develop and frame environmental regulations and laws. Everyone wants power and wants to move projects forward, so there’s an urgent need to establish an environmental voice early in an emerging democracy. Creating an environmental advocacy program like this will help ensure environmental advocates have a seat at the table when policies are developed.