Broadcast on BBC TWO this evening, Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq was a wonderful example of wildlife documentary making.
The program presented the work of Azzam Alwash, a man who grew up with the Mesopotamian Marshes in his soul, and a man blessed with the vision to restore the vast area - once dominant in south east Iraq - to its former glory. In the 1990's Saddam Hussein decided that in order to eradicate the indigenous people of the wetlands he would drain the region - turning it into a naked dustbowl. The rivers that once supplied the wetlands with water, like the Euphrates, were placed in straight-jackets and a network of canals was built to channel water towards the Gulf instead of the central marshes.
Today, Alwash is overseeing the return to life of the area. Birds, mammals, fish... the people. Here it all seemed as one. A way of life restored for everything.
Before this evening I had absolutely no idea the Mesopotamian Marshes ever existed, and no idea about the work that is taking place to restore them. Now I am captivated and will be donating to Nature Iraq, the organization Alwash established to give the work its core structure.
The return of birds shown in the documentary, from the characterful Pied Kingfisher, to the elegant Black-winged Stilt, to the Greater Flamingos, Iraq Babbler and mostly heartening of all... the Basra Reed Warbler (almost endemic to the region) demonstrate that if you provide the environment they will come. The most amazing sight, however, was a flock of c.40,000 Marbled Teal, a species last seen in the country over 20 years ago. The look on the film maker's, and Alwash's face, was unforgettable. He could see the past erupting into life and could not contain his delight.
Of course, the film was careful to highlight what a dangerous place Iraq remains, and we were never far away from a weapon, or bunker, or armoured vehicle. This stuff demands attention, too. If only the country could stabilise sufficiently that tourism could gain even a slender foothold, I've no doubts these wetlands would represent an essential 'eco-tourism' destination. Sure, even from a environmental point of view the comeback is a slow one ("two steps forward, once step back... but on the right track", as Alwash put it). For example there are issues with maintaining sufficient water supply to allow full restoration of the marshes. Dams upstream in Syria and Turkey rob the region of the water supply it once enjoyed, and so Alwash has had to get creative with the water trapped in Saddam's canal network. But still... the place looked, frankly, awesome.
A glowing word, also, for the film makers themselves. There was a well thought out narrative to the program, no talking down to the audience, and the problems were laid out as openly as the successes.
Here is a link the program in the BBC's iPlayer - http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00xxf9f/hd/Natural_World_20102011_Miracle_in_the_Marshes_of_Iraq/
If you need to put a spring in your step this winter, look no further.
Birding in Iraq.
What a prospect.