Wildlife documentary. David Johnson records a huge habitat recreation project in Iraq, bringing back to life one of the world's greatest marshlands.
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The word "Iraq" brings to the Western mind
images of desert, images of oil,
of bloodshed, violence.
But the word "Iraq" brings to me images of reed forests.
Images of plentiful fishing,
images of birds filling the sky.
Lakes extending as far as the eye can see.
I hope the West will get to see
my version of Iraq, soon.
Looking at its landscape,
you wouldn't imagine southern Iraq
had been home to one of the world's most important wetlands.
But as recently as the 1980s, this
looked like this.
An enormous marshland, 6,000 square miles in area.
Fed by the combined waters
of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,
it dominated southern Iraq.
It was known as the Mesopotamian Marshes
and many Biblical scholars believe it was the original Garden of Eden.
What's certain is that for over 7,000 years,
it was a unique habitat of global importance,
where wildlife and people lived in harmony.
Then, in the 1990s,
the marshes were virtually destroyed by Saddam Hussein
in an attempt to eradicate the indigenous Marsh Arabs.
Drained of water,
the region's biggest wetland was turned to dust.
An interdependent community of people and wildlife, wiped out.
Since the fall of Saddam, however,
there's been a concerted effort to recreate the marshes.
'My name's David Johnson.
'Together with cameraman, Steve Foote,
'I've decided to brave the violence and chaos that still bedevil Iraq,
'to see if the marshes can be restored.
'And to meet Azzam Alwash,
'who is driving what is, in effect,
'the biggest habitat recreation project in the world.
'Steve and I also want to see
'if this wetland's amazing variety of wildlife still exists.'
The marshes were of crucial importance
'to a wide variety of birds,
providing a vital habitat corridor for their migrations.
Marbled teal, like these filmed in neighbouring Turkey,
rely on marshlands to survive over winter and breed.
The draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes
helped make them a globally threatened species.
It's a similar story with the Basra Reed Warbler.
It takes its name from the nearby city of Basra
and is rarely seen out of the region,
except on migration to East Africa.
With its breeding grounds virtually destroyed,
we want to know what's happened to this endangered bird.
'Our mission sounds straightforward,
'but that's without the Iraq factor.'
Since the 2003 invasion,
this country has been torn apart by violence and civil war.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died.
So why have we risked it?
We had an opportunity here to make a film about a hidden part of Iraq,
a piece of Iraq that people, generally
are completely unaware of.
And hopefully, a positive story in the final analysis,
'about a part of the world
'that just doesn't get a lot of positive press.'
I felt that this was a film that was actually worth making
and the risks involved were worth taking.
This film is not about the "bang-bang", it's about the tweet-tweet!
'Before Steve and I could even set foot in Iraq,
'we had to have specific training
'on working in a hostile environment.
'It covered everything from combat first aid and survival techniques,
'to weapons recognition and dealing with kidnapping.'
But nothing really prepares you for the reality of a place like Iraq.
We travel everywhere in specially-adapted Land Cruisers,
fitted with plate armour and bullet-proof glass.
-"Junction ahead, straight, straight..."
'We're accompanied by a private security team,
'equipped to deal with all eventualities.'
Our quarters will be the two US Airbases in the south of Iraq
and it's pretty clear when we arrive at the Basra base,
that it's a million miles away from the comforts of home.
Pretty much the first thing that happens is you get a big safety briefing about rocket attacks
and what to do in the event that the alarms go off.
Seven rockets were fired into the base the night before last. This is real, this is happening.
'Only with all these precautions in place,
'can we finally start making the film.
'Our first priority is to meet the man
'who is at the centre of the enormous project
'to re-establish this unique wetland -
'Azzam grew up in the town of Nasiriyah,
'on the banks of the Euphrates.
'As a boy, he accompanied his father -
'a government water engineer - on many trips into the marshes.
'No photos exist of those trips,
'but these stills, published around the same time,
'capture a flavour of the environment he encountered.'
My memory of those boat trips is that we are passing through these passageways
that are surrounded with reed beds,
that to my mind's eye, extended to the sky.
These were towering reeds.
I remember leaning over the outside of the boat
and looking into this clear water and seeing fish.
And I remember heat.
And every now and then,
we'd go out of these meandering rivers into these wide lakes
and suddenly there's this breeze that comes into you,
that cools you down.
What I remember is a sense of serenity,
a sense of warmth, a sense of love.
A sense of being with my father, enjoying a unique place.
Azzam treasured those memories,
more so after fleeing Saddam's regime and settling in the USA.
Then, in the wake of the 2003 invasion,
he took time out from his thriving engineering practice
to return to Iraq and see what had happened to his beloved marshes.
But nothing prepared him for what he found when he arrived.
The first time I saw the dried marshes, the dried Central Marshes,
it was literally a physical blow.
It was painful.
Seeing a place that you grew up in,
that you have kept in your memories,
green, full of life, birds...
and it's a desert, it's dead.
And then you look at the destroyed homes,
you look at the remnants of boats
and you wonder about the loss for the people -
what does it mean?
The indigenous Madan tribes
had relied on the marshes for their livelihood.
But as these satellite images show,
the marshes, once nearly the size of Wales,
had shrunk to less than 10% of their original area,
far too small to sustain the local population.
'Fahid Al-Assadi, a family friend of Azzam, watched it happen.'
Starving, and terrorised by Saddam's troops,
the Marsh Arab population collapsed
from a quarter of a million to just a few thousand.
Fleeing to elsewhere in Iraq, Iran, or further afield,
most, like Fadhila Jabbah,
thought their way of life had gone forever.
But after Saddam's fall in 2003, a return did indeed become possible.
Azzam, following up on his father's old contacts,
headed for Al Caba'ish in the Central Marshes.
'So, following in his footsteps, it's our next destination, too.
'Of course, the security situation means it's easier said than done.
'Disguised as roadside debris,
'Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs,
'are often used to attack the security forces.'
Sadly, private security teams like ours
also constitute a legitimate target.
The other main risk we face is kidnap,
a prospect that's rare, but no less unnerving for it.
To minimise both threats, we vary our route every day
and try to avoid going to the same location two days running,
or establishing any kind of pattern at all.
Well, we actually left our base over an hour ago,
but we're only calling Azzam now
because, from a security point of view,
we can't talk about things in advance.
It's very much on a need to know basis.
It really minimises the risk of kidnap,
if we leave everything to the last moment.
Makes our lives more difficult from a planning point of view,
but it keeps us safe.
It's over two hours before we finally reach Al Caba'ish.
It used to be at the heart of the Central Marshes,
but now it's dry and dusty,
cut off from the Euphrates River by an enormous embankment.
If you came before the embankment was built, this was all marsh.
This was reed beds all the way, as far as the eye can see.
This was where the water buffalo frolicked and lived.
Now, we come back in 2003...
Well, this is essentially what you see.
Desert plant, tamarix,
the water world had disappeared -
This embankment and its twin on the far shore,
are relics of the enormous engineering works
carried out by Saddam to drain the marshes dry.
45 miles long and seven metres high,
they were built to prevent the Euphrates
ever flooding this section of the marshes.
Every piece of dirt that was used to build this embankment
was imported from the desert.
You can imagine the amount of money that was spent
in order to prevent the marshes from ever coming back to life.
'But this is just a small part of the work Saddam carried out.
'Although it looks like a river,
'this is, in fact, a canal,
'part of the network built by Saddam to channel water around the marshes,
'funnelling it straight to the Gulf,
'over 150 miles to the south.'
Part of me envies the engineers.
I mean, it's an incredible accomplishment, really.
To drain 12,000 square kilometres of wetland is no easy feat.
It's certainly an incredible engineering feat,
but it's a disaster of a project.
Seeing Saddam's network of canals at first hand,
I am struck by just the sheer scale of the work.
It's as breathtaking as it is depressing.
However, the Marsh Arabs who returned after Saddam's overthrow,
were resolute in their determination to reflood the marshes.
They dug breaches in the canal walls,
but in many cases,
the embankments were just too big for them to tackle.
'Back in Al Caba'ish,
'Azzam was undeterred.'
The Euphrates is right here in the background
and we mobilised an excavator
and started digging a trench.
The trench got to the water level
and then the water took care of the rest of the problem.
As soon as the water started flowing, it started undermining the embankment
and basically, made this excavation the width that it is.
However, as people were finding out across the region,
reflooding areas was just the beginning.
I come back three months later
and I'm standing on top of a bridge here
and I'm looking at the marsh
and I see nothing but red, stagnated water.
And I'm saying, "Uh-oh..."
"..What the hell did I do?"
I thought at that point
we might have created an environmental disaster.
Eventually, all the reddish stuff
that kind of got dissolved in the water,
started going out.
And six months later,
reeds were coming back up
and it was amazing. It was incredible, really.
The seeds had survived nearly a decade of drought
and triggered by the return of water,
new reed beds sprang up right across the region.
It was a fantastic demonstration of nature's ability
to recover from the worst of disasters.
Even though our first sight of the marshes is in mid-winter,
it's striking just how large the reed beds are
and how varied the bird life is.
Pied Kingfishers are everywhere.
Capable of hovering for long periods in search of prey,
they can swallow small fish in flight,
an ability that allows them to thrive
amidst reed beds that offer few solid perches.
We see them nesting in the embankments built by Saddam
and it's obvious the species has thrived.
Equally prevalent are Black-winged Stilts.
With their distinctive red legs, they patrol shallow areas,
on the prowl for worms and small fish.
a species exclusive to Southeast Europe,
Central Asia and the Middle East, are thriving.
We also chance upon wintering migrant birds,
like this juvenile Imperial Eagle,
which may have travelled here from as far away as central Russia.
And in a happy echo of that 1980s archive footage,
we spot a large flock of Great White Pelicans.
The marshes are like...
Well, they're called the Garden of Eden, aren't they?
It's just extraordinary, it's just such a peaceful, peaceful place.
'It's an incredibly relaxing experience.
'In fact, out in the boat,
'it's easy to forget we're in Iraq at all.'
Another delight is seeing just how many of the Marsh Arabs
have decided to return to the area.
People like Hammed Sarsar.
With wildlife and reeds re-established,
the Marsh Arab way of life is rising from the ashes.
What we've learned is that the people and the environment are interconnected here.
What's good for the environment is good for the people,
what's good for the people is good for the environment, so they are not separate.
From the reeds, they build their own islands, upon which they build their houses.
From the reeds, they make mats for trading and bartering.
From the young reeds, they feed their water buffalo.
From the dried reeds, they bake their bread.
It's the trunk upon which the Marsh Arab's life is built.
Steve and I also benefit from this plant's inherent strength.
'Getting panoramic shots out here is difficult, because it's so flat.
'And Steve has to make use of whatever high point he can find.
'Out in the marshes, the only way we can
'achieve the same kind of photography is by getting the locals to build platforms for us out of reeds.'
It's very strong and it's actually quite sturdy.
'But we've managed to successfully film some birds from it this morning.
'I think it's testament to
'the building material itself.'
'It's not all been good news.
'A helicopter ride, courtesy of the US military,
'reveals that the restoration has been patchy and sporadic.
'It's a far cry from the endless wetlands that Azzam knew as a child.
'And the situation was even worse in 2004.
'People were reflooding individual sections of marshland, but there was no co-ordination
'between different areas,
'and no-one with a coherent plan to ensure the marshes' long-term future.
'Having played a part in restoring one area,
'Azzam decided to stay in Iraq
'and set up an organisation to address this bigger picture.
'Despite the chaos enveloping the country, Azzam has had no doubt it was the right decision.'
'This is the cradle of western civilisation.'
Around the shores of these lakes,
mankind built their first cities.
Or the birthplace of civilisation at least. Western civilisation
is on the edges of these marshes,
or is where writing was invented, or where Abraham was born.
And many scholars
theorise that the marshes are, in fact, the site of Eden.
Why ask why work on restoring Eden? Eden is not
just a state of mind, it's a place, it's in
the marshes of Iraq.
'Shuttling between his family in California and work in Iraq,
'Azzam has established a conservation organisation, Nature Iraq.
'Since 2004, they have worked hard to promote the cause of the marshes and the Marsh Arabs.'
Some people think that we're silly, working on the marshes in the middle of civil insurrection,
in the middle of kidnapping, gangs, and what have you.
'We take our precautions, we try to protect our people as much as we can.
'But life cannot stop waiting for the civil war to be finished.
'There's work to be done and there is the next generation to educate.'
'Azzam wants to establish Iraq's first National Park
'in the Central Marshes,
'using the wildlife as its main attraction.
'It's all part of his plan to secure the long-term future of the region.'
It is my dream to have this area become
an eco-tourism Mecca,
as well as an archaeological Mecca for tourists.
I see people arriving in plane loads, and even before
making it to the hotel, visiting the oldest city in the world, Ur.
Visiting Abraham's house, visiting the royal tombs.
And the next day, we would take them into staying in lodges in the middle
of the marshes, taking them on kayak trips to see rare birds.
This has to be a place the rest of the world has to see,
so they can help us maintain it for the next generation.
'It takes quite a leap of imagination to share Azzam's vision.
'Although our accommodation is clean, it's not exactly five star...
'Instead of the hotel bar, we have a...
'And while there's no need to rush out early to bag a spot on the beach,
'there are other compelling arguments that prevent a lie-in.'
It's just gone half past five in the morning.
A little bit earlier than I would prefer to be up,
but there has been some intelligence
that there are some IEDs out on some of the roads that we're travelling.
We're hoping to get out and early before really any of the insurgents are up and about
and hopefully that will keep us safe.
Slightly nerve-wracking, but
all part of the fun of working in Iraq!
'Bombs are one of the reasons our security team relies on so many vehicles.
'The scout car travels first, followed by our 4x4.
'If either of us break down, or are blown up,
'the third car is there to pick up the pieces.
'The fourth vehicle carries all the heavy weapons.
'It's their job to extricate us when the bullets start flying.
'Thankfully, we don't encounter any bombs while making the film, but that doesn't mean the risk is overstated.
'In the first six months of 2010, there are on average more than
'two violent incidents a day, just in the region we're working in.
'About half of those are roadside or vehicle-borne explosions, including
'one that goes off just outside a military base we're staying at.
'And Azzam himself accepts
'that Iraq is a long way off becoming a tourist destination.'
I cannot make this argument in today's Iraq, when people are being found headless in the street.
This is not yet
'an eco-tourism destination, but these are some of my dreams.'
'Even if Iraq becomes a stable and peaceful place,
'Azzam knows he needs to convince the locals, investors and
'potential visitors, that the marshes do have a long-term future
'and that the wildlife is here to stay.
'Which is one of the reasons Nature Iraq regularly sends
'survey teams into the marshes,
'and winter is a crucial time of year for monitoring activity here.
Many birds, like these Spanish and Dead Sea Sparrows,
rely on this wetland to feed and roost in winter.
And it's a key watering hole for millions of migrants
on the long, hazardous journey between Eurasia and Africa.
'By recording the numbers and different species of birds
'passing through, the survey teams will be able to assess the general health of specific populations,
'a good indicator of the overall condition of the marshes themselves.
'And there's exciting news.
'According to some local fishermen, a large flock of marbled teal
'has been spotted in the Central Marshes.
'This endangered species hasn't been seen in this area for 20 years,
'so we've joined Azzam and chief ornithologist, Mudhafar Salim, to see if it's true.'
In the chaos of the Iraq of today,
this is a piece of heaven.
Just being at one with nature,
the rustling of the reeds.
Isn't this what heaven is all about?
'It takes us half an hour to reach the lake where the teal are supposed to be.
'If the reports are accurate, it should just be a question of patience.'
THEY SPEAK ARABIC
'We're in luck.'
A flock of marbled teal is congregating on the far side of the lake.
'What's really exciting is that there are far more teal than we expected.'
You've got to see this. Oh, my gosh.
Oh, my God.
Oh, my God! Look at this, look at this!
That is incredible.
'If you were here in 2004, 2005, when the water first arrived,
'you would have seen desert and nothing but tamarisk.
And today you see reeds, it's winter and it's yellow, it's not alive,
but the most beautiful thing is the fact
you have, I don't know, 20,000 - he says 20,000 - I have no idea!
I just know it's a black cloud of birds and it's filling the sky
and it's just amazing, what will happen when you let water back in.
When we tell this to Birdlife International, I think they're going to be
uncorking champagne. I think, I'm not sure!
It makes it worthwhile, all the sacrifices, missing my children's
birthdays, missing my wife's birthday,
missing an anniversary, missing the girl's graduation,
When my kids and my grandkids come here,
and we talk about the missed opportunities,
there is something I can point to as this is the reason why.
'It's an amazing moment.'
The sight of so many birds emphasizes the marshes' importance as a wildlife habitat,
and it convinces me this could actually become an eco-tourism destination in the future.
'Analysing the photographs later, the team revise their estimates of teal numbers upwards.
'They now think there are over 40,000 in the marshes this winter,
'five times the previous highest count, and almost double
'the previous estimates of the world population.
'But we aren't the only people to spot the teal.
'These men are hunters, attempting to bag a few birds for the pot.
Surrounded by a group of excited conservationists, I half expect us to rush off and confront them.
'But Azzam knows that a balance has to be struck
'between the needs of the wildlife and those of the Marsh Arabs.'
We're not going to prevent people from going in there and hunting,
we're not going to prevent people from going there and fishing.
It's their land, it's their area,
they can go in there and fish all they want.
The fact is the marshes need to be restored, but need to be restored
for the people, not for nature, per se.
But both can benefit from this.
'It's early April and we're back to see what effect the spring
'floods have had, and to film some of the marshes' resident wildlife.
'To give us the best chance of actually seeing any, our security
'team has worked hard to set up a one-off overnight in Al-Caba'ish.
'It will allow us to film at sunset and sunrise, when the birds and amphibians are most prevalent.
'The benefits are immediately apparent.
'The resident marsh frogs treat us, not just to a chorus,
'but to a mating display as well.'
This is all good stuff.
'Later, when we see the arrangements required for the overnight,
'it's pretty clear why we can't do this all the time.'
We've got a ten-man security team working with us.
And on top of that, we've also got the TSU, the Tactical Support Unit of the Iraqi police guarding us.
So it's quite a big operation, really.
Slightly surreal, considering, really, they're only looking after Steve and I.
So we're in this bizarre position where there are thirty people here
to look after two, which feels really odd.
The thing is, I can't quite figure out, is it weird because there are
only two of us, we don't need thirty to look after us, surely?
Or is it weird because, actually, we do need thirty to look after us
and that says something about the environment we're in?
Either way, it's pretty peculiar, especially since we're really just here to film some ducks.
Overnight is a success, although the morning is
more of a smash and grab raid than a conventional wildlife shoot.
'Guards and guns rather compromise our ability to blend in.
'The light is nothing to get excited about either,
'but we do get a glimpse of an Iraq Babbler.
'Its rather bland looks disguise its significance.
'This species can only be found here,
'over the border in Iran, and upstream along the Euphrates.
'The Babbler is definitely a tick,
'but we are hoping to see some of the marshes' more exotic inhabitants.
'However, heading off later, Mudhafar reminds us that just a few years ago,
any of birding trip would have been impossible.
Initially, we see little except slender billed gulls.
'Then, after a bit of wading to get right out to the edge of the marsh,
'we're rewarded with a sight of my favourite bird - a flock of Greater Flamingo.
'These birds probably breed in northern Iran, but attracted
'by the warmer temperatures, they'll spend several months here,
'moving from one brackish spot to another.'
'The job of conserving the wildlife here is getting harder.
'In fact, the whole marsh restoration project is at risk.
'And looking at the Euphrates River, it's immediately apparent why.
'By now, the river should be starting to flood, swollen with snow-melt from its head-waters in Turkey.
'In fact, it looks lower now than it did in January.
'It's the continuation of a drought that has been going on for nearly three years.
'And from a peak of over 50%, the proportion of marshland
'that's been restored has slumped to around 30%.
'The drought is not the sole cause of the problems.
'The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have been dammed
'since the time of the Babylonians, 4,000 years ago.
'But recently, the rate of upstream dam construction
'has increased dramatically, and the marshes now receive less than a fifth of the water they did 30 years ago.'
The lack of water is the result of dams upstream, in Iraq,
but mostly in Turkey and Syria.
If there's enough water, we can restore 100% of the marshes.
The hindering block is, in fact, this lack of water.
The dams are creating an additional problem.
The traditional cycle of spring floods, flushing out accumulated salt deposits, no longer occurs.
'And, as scientists like Nabeel Hasan are seeing, the marshes
'are becoming steadily more saline.'
You can use this multimeter to take an indicator of the water quality, but the plants can give you
a first indicator.
Water lily is now growing very limited,
and in a specific area, it's less than before.
It makes me sad, actually,
because when you work in the marshes,
you feel like each plant
is like, you know, like your baby.
The water quality changes aren't just affecting the plants.
Traditional freshwater fish
are being replaced by species that are salt water tolerant.
Elsewhere, areas have dried completely.
The few pools of water left, like those close to
Fadhila Jabber's house, are often stagnant and polluted.
'It's late May, the beginning of summer in the marshes.
'We've returned to Iraq for one final trip.
'Our main objective is to film the rare Basra Reed Warbler.
'Like these Squacco Herons,
'or these Red Crested Potchard, the Reed Warblers should be nesting now.
'And our best chance of seeing one lies in finding an occupied nest,
'somewhere out here in the marshes.
'We also want to find out what steps,
'if any, are being taken to tackle the dreadful lack of water.
'If the problem is not addressed,
'then much of the work carried out to date will be for nothing.
'However, returning to the river,
'it's obvious that in our absence Azzam and his team have been busy.'
Early last year, we did notice that the Euphrates level was dropping,
as a result, the Central Marshes were beginning to re-dry.
In order to prevent that from happening, one of my engineers thought of the idea of building
an embankment across the Euphrates, raising the level of the Euphrates upstream.
The embankment is now being built by the Ministry of Water Resources
to actually rehydrate the Central Marshes,
and the Central Marshes are rehydrating as we speak.
'Putting yet another dam in the Euphrates
'can only be a stop-gap measure.
'It's just intended to buy time, while Azzam musters the resources to
'implement his grand plan to secure the long-term future for this area.
'To achieve it, he's taking on
'one of the most enduring legacies of Saddam's reign.
'This is the Glory River, the largest of Saddam's drainage canals.
'Until now, it's been left largely intact.
'That's about to change.'
At this point in time, we're building a regulator at the beginning of the Glory River.
I hope you will see that there's not going to be any water flowing here, all the water that's flowing into
the Glory River should be flowing into the Central Marshes, where it will go to the National Park.
With this water, we can restore the majority of the Central Marshes.
That's just part of the vision.
Diverting water from the Glory River is like turning on a bath tap.
But Azzam is also playing with the plug in order to recreate the natural water cycle.
What we're trying to do here is to create a mechanical flood, as it were.
We have a series of nine regulators, just about the same size as this one.
We're going to use these regulators to kind of hold water in the winter
and make the water go up and basically wet the dry areas, or the high areas.
And then let the water go out in the spring,
creating a small flood cycle for the central marsh.
It's a compromise, essentially.
It's basically creating a small flood pulse, as opposed
to the large pulses that used to happen by nature.
The water that comes into the marshes these days does not have
the turbidity, does not have the silt and clay that it used to have, with the natural floods.
So it is a half solution, but it's better than nothing.
'The project's being funded by the Iraqi government, but was developed using money from Italy.'
a small generator for them.
THEY SPEAK ARABIC
Thank you very much.
'Several Western governments provide aid to help in the rebuilding of Iraq, channelling funds through
'specially set up Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs.
'Here in Dhi Qar Province, the PRT is run by the Italians.
'And its head, Anna Prouse, is a committed supporter of the efforts to maintain and extend the marshes.'
'I haven't been out here now in a few months, and I was smiling.
'I said, I am so glad I came out here.'
Because at the beginning, there was was not much to see out here.
The heart would cry when you saw it.
Now, you start seeing water with fish again, and the birds flying in the evening when the sun goes down.
It is, you know,
it's good for the soul.
Here, you just breathe the future,
you just breathe that there is a possibility.
And this is thanks to the wildlife.
That sense of hope is a valuable commodity in Iraq,
because the deteriorating security situation could plunge the country back into chaos.
'The upsurge in violence is partly due
'to the inconclusive results of the national elections in March 2010.
'With no clear winner, the competing groups
'have so far failed to form a coalition government.
'In effect, no-one is in charge.'
No. Er, on the causeway.
OK, see you then.
'With just a few days to go,
'we thankfully haven't had to deal with any serious security incidents.
'But we still want to film the elusive Basra Reed Warbler
'and today's early start looks to have been a wasted effort.'
We've just had a bit of a delay this morning, an argument over boats.
We'd got boats organised to take us out into the marsh,
but one of the locals was arguing because we weren't using his boat.
'And the only way it was going to get resolved was by calling up the local
'Sheikh and the local Head of Police to try and resolve it.
'The boats that have come to pick us up belong to one tribe, but to reach us, they've had
'to travel into another tribe's area, which is the source of the dispute.
'As the argument intensifies, it feels like
'I'm watching a microcosm of the parliamentary negotiations...
'and they've been going on for months.
'Being held like this in one place
'is never good from a safety point of view, and after an hour's delay,
'the security team leader decides to abandon filming.
'Visible for miles around atop an embankment,
'we are extremely vulnerable.
'But we can't just head off.
'Our police escort has called up a local detachment to guide us
'through the nearby town, so we must move the vehicles off the skyline while we wait for them to appear.
'Every new arrival is now viewed as a potential threat.
'Even the confirmation of their identity as the detachment
'we've been waiting for does little to reduce the tension.'
I've just been informed by the TL that we're moving out in approximately two minutes.
Are we going back through Suk Anq sukh?
No, we're going to go a different route.
Just shows how a situation can get out of control
over something as simple as using the wrong boat,
can easily flare up into a full-on
bunfight, as they say.
'But if we thought our next stop would be the sanctuary of our base, we were sadly mistaken.'
Well, as you can see, things have escalated a bit further.
Didn't quite expect to be on the inside of an Iraqi police station.
The guy who was complaining wouldn't take money.
We came to the conclusion that, potentially,
there's another agenda going on.
This whole area is now deemed potentially hostile,
and we are now waiting for re-enforcements to join us.
The only thing we can really do is return to base, regroup and come up with a plan for tomorrow.
'After 45 minutes, more heavily armed TSU squads arrive
'and we can finally start the long journey home.
The guy who'd been kicking up a fuss over the boats, and was subsequently arrested, has actually turned out
to be a member of the Mahdi Army, which is a militia group.
And that's just changed the whole perspective on that situation.
The Iraqi police unit
that was escorting us is taking it so seriously that we actually have
six TSU vehicles with us now.
So we are now a military convoy of ten vehicles in total,
which is a measure of
how seriously the local police are taking the situation.
'After all the effort to get us out to Iraq and into the marshes,
'the loss of a whole day's filming is difficult to stomach.
'But as they say out here, "Inshallah"
'- it's God's will.
'We can only hope he smiles on us tomorrow.
We're going up this little channel, away from all the other boats, to try and find a Basra Reed Warbler nest.
It's one of the indigenous species
to the marshes and, as its name suggests,
this is really one of the only parts of the world where it's found.
According to Azzam's survey teams, Basra Reed Warblers were nesting here last year.
We're hoping that the drying of the marshes hasn't prevented their return.
It's over here. Can you see it, David?
'Steve spots a nest.'
If necessary, I'll go and stand in the water and do it.
'But is it still in use?'
Let's go back there.
'We're in luck, and we get our first view
'of one of the world's rare birds, a Basra Reed Warbler.
'Its unspectacular appearance belies the magnitude of the moment.
'This bird, which breeds here and virtually nowhere else,
'embodies the spirit of the Mesopotamia Marshes.
'If it can recover, then it speaks volumes
'for the whole rehabilitation project.
'And despite the drought, surveys show its breeding range
'is greater now than at any time since 2003.'
This is what I love about my job.
This is what makes you work harder,
to make other places come back.
Yeah, this is the best part.
'Successes like this are part of what keeps Azzam and his colleagues going.
'And if the challenges ahead over water supply
'or any other threat seem daunting, it's important to remember
'the progress made
'after the virtual destruction of this unique environment.'
'Whenever I'm inside the marshes, I feel at peace,
'listening to sound of the wind going through the rushes,
'the sound of birds calling in the distance.
'to have that feeling back again, especially when you contrast it'
to 2003, when there was nothing
but desert and sand in your ears and nose.
It's that contrast, between the devastation wrought by Saddam,
and the areas of marshes that have been restored,
that continues to give hope.
Not just for the Mesopotamian Marshes, but also for other
parts of the world that have suffered because of mankind's lack of respect.
In many ways, the restoration of the marshes mirrors the restoration of Iraq -
two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back.
But you know what? Directionally, we're on the right track.
The future's good, all you need is
to have the will and persist.
And if we can restore this, Iraq can be restored too.
Subtitles by RED BEE MEDIA LTD
E-mail: [email protected]
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, film-maker 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 reflood 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.