EVER since reading Wilfred Thesiger’s classic 1960s book about The Marsh Arabs I’ve been fascinated by the people of southern Iraq who over centuries developed a unique culture centred around the marshes' natural resources
Thesiger came to understand and admire a way of life built entirely around thousands of miles of freshwater wetland.
It is thought that around half a million Marsh Arabs lived in and around the 12,000 square miles of marshes which teemed with water buffalo and migratory birds. They built their homes and the economy from the reeds which grew in abundance.
Thirty years on and broadcaster and film-maker Michael Wood found a very different place.
His 1993 award-winning documentary Saddam’s Killing Fields exposed what many saw as Saddam Hussein’s systematic genocide of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq.
Saddam drained the marshes in the 1990s, reducing wetlands to desert and forcing its people to disperse.
Those who survived fled to live as refugees in Iran or other parts of Iraq. This was an environmental, economic and human disaster.
This week, in a Natural World Special on BBC2, we saw a two man British documentary team travel to the marshes to witness something of a miracle.
At the heart of that miracle lay charismatic Iraqi engineer Azzam Alwash who is attempting to bring the vast marshland back to life. And who, to a degree, is succeeding.
What he has taken on is the world’s biggest habitat restoration project. No more, no less.
In Miracle Of The Marshes, this engaging man talked about boyhood days when he travelled through the marshes with his father, a water engineer.
“The heat, the reeds, the fish, these are the things I remember,” he said.
“There was a sense of serenity and warmth, of being with my father in this unique place.”
Though based these days in America, Azzam Alwash is spearheading the effort to undo the damage. His team has been knocking holes in the massive canals and embankments built by Saddam to drain the marshes.
Water is now coming back to the area and with it thousands of migrating birds – and people.
Film-maker David Johnson and cameraman Stephen Foote confirmed that documentary makers have to deal with hostile environment training, teams of security guards and basic conditions to get their footage in the can.
But what they brought back was an exciting glimpse of what might be possible in terms of restoring one of the world’s most remarkable eco-systems and the culture that has grown around it.
And that with encouragement, Mother Nature can undo some of the worst damage that humans can inflict on her.