Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq

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Natural World, 2010-2011 Episode 9 of 14

Duration: 1 hour

Wildlife documentary.

It's the largest and most ambitious habitat recreation project ever known: to bring back to life one of the world's greatest marshlands. And it's happening in Iraq.

Considered to be the original Garden of Eden, the marshes were once Iraq's wildlife jewel, where man and nature thrived for 5,000 years. But in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein drained these gigantic wetlands and turned them into a desert, destroying a home to thousands of people and millions of birds.

Donning his body armour, filmmaker David Johnson travels to the Mesopotamian Marshes to follow the work of Azzam Alwash, the visionary Iraqi engineer at the centre of this extraordinary scheme to re-flood hundreds of miles of desert and bring back life to the sands. This is a view of Iraq the world never sees, a world of huge reed beds and vast flocks of birds that fill the sky. But nothing ever quite goes to plan in Iraq.

  • A Basra Reed Warbler

    A Basra Reed Warbler

    This tiny bird is restricted to only a few sites in the Middle East as its marshy home is becoming rarer. The Mesopotamian marshes are a vital breeding ground for this bird when it returns from its wintering grounds in East Africa. For Azzam, having this bird back in the marshes is a real success story and he hopes its presence will bring bird-watchers from around the world to Iraq.

    Find out more about the Basra Reed Warbler at Birdlife International's species pages
  • The drained marshes

    The drained marshes

    In the 1990’s Saddam Hussein drained the Mesopotamian Marshes to punish the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes, who had risen against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. The effects were devastating. The marshes, which are believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden, had been of crucial importance to wildlife in the region. Surrounded by deserts they were a vital source of fresh water, sustaining a wide biodiversity of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. They were vital for migrating birds, providing a much-needed watering hole for birds making the long journey between Eurasia and Africa. With the marshes virtually destroyed the wildlife populations collapsed.

  • The waters return

    The waters return

    Since the fall of Saddam there has been a concreted effort to restore the marshes and re-establish both the wildlife and the Marsh Arab way of life. At the heart of this work is Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi, who himself fled Saddam’s regime. He grew up in Nasriyah and used to accompany his father, a government water engineer on trips into the marshes, trips which infused him with a love of the this “magical waterworld”. After the 2003 invasion Azzam returned to Iraq to help restore the marshes. To that end he established Nature Iraq an organisation dedicated to the protection and restoration of Iraq’s natural heritage.

  • Filming in Iraq

    Filming in Iraq

    Filming in Iraq is not easy. The threat of roadside bombs and kidnap means their vehicles are armoured plated 4x4s and they must wear body armour most of the time. Despite having this protection as well as teams of security, the film crew still had to be careful. They were unable to stay in one place for very long which often proved very difficult whilst waiting to film the elusive birds that inhabit the marshes.


Series Editor
Tim Martin
David Johnson
Executive Producer
Bernard Walton


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