One morning last September Pete Nichols of Humboldt Baykeeper was up early working, listening to the radio in the background. Something on the BBC News caught his attention.
"I heard an interview with this Iraqi, Azzam Alwash, talking about his [river] restoration work for an organization called Nature Iraq," Nichols recalled a couple of weeks ago. "It was this fantastic story of restoring the wetlands that were supposedly the Garden of Eden."
He decided to learn more. Now, six months later, Nichols is on his way to meet Azzam Alwash in person, in Iraq.
Nichols established Humboldt Baykeeper seven years ago in the wake of the battle against a plan floated by the power company Calpine to establish a liquid natural gas import terminal on the Samoa Peninsula. Not seeing an environmental group with a specific focus on the bay, he joined forces with the larger Waterkeeper Alliance, an advocacy organization started 12 years ago by Robert Kennedy Jr. that initially brought together likeminded groups on the East Coast.
"The Hudson Riverkeeper group was the genesis of it all," said Nichols. "That was started by commercial fishermen in the '60s. There are 197 groups right now, nationally and internationally."
And the next may be Waterkeeper Iraq.
Because Nichols serves on the Waterkeeper board, he's among those responsible for what are known as site visits, basically checking out new chapters before they are brought into the fold. One such visit took him to China two years ago.
As Waterkeeper Executive Director Marc Yaggi explained, "As we've grown in the last 12 years, 40 percent of our Waterkeeper organizations are outside the United States. We have them in 19 countries on six continents."
Calling from Waterkeeper headquarters in New York City, Yaggi said the common thread is "a belief that everyone has a right to clean water, that all of our waterways should be fishable, swimable and drinkable."
The group's major growth has been in South and Central America along with Asia. They have four groups in China with two more in the works. Some work better than others. "There are definitely challenges all over the world. We just have to realize that different types of advocacy work in different frameworks," said Yaggi.
"For example, our Middle Han Waterkeeper, Yun Jianli, has the first non-governmental pollution control patrol boat in China. She has been a visible presence on the river and has been educating the public on the value of clean water. That has had an influence on how decisions are made."
Yun Jianli, whom Nichols met in China before she established a Waterkeeper group, has since succeeded in closing offending factories and forcing pollution control upgrades by seeing to it that China's water pollution law is enforced.
As we go to press, Nichols is in New York making final plans for his trip to the Middle East. He knows it will be different from other site visits.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous about it," he admitted when we met in Arcata a week before he left Humboldt. "I've been trained by the media to have a certain picture of Iraq in my head. I'm looking forward to dispelling that and creating a new vision for myself. You know, you meet people and start talking about their way of life, and nature, and you always find a lot of commonality."
He sensed a commonality with Alwash six months ago when he googled his name to learn about his work. Born in Iraq and raised in Nasiriyah, on the banks of the Tigris, by a father who served as an irrigation engineer, Alwash came to California in 1978 and earned civil engineering degrees from CSU Fullerton and USC.
In 1998, he and his geologist wife, Suzanne, founded a group called Eden Again to focus attention on the intentional draining of the marshes at the delta on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area some might remember from their history books as Mesopotamia, the "Cradle of Civilization."
After the first Iraq War, Saddam Hussein punished Shiite rebels who lived in the marshlands by diverting the river, taking away their water and their livelihood and causing an environmental disaster in the process. "It was basically an ethnic cleansing," said Nichols. "He drained the wetlands and turned them into a desert, then he burned [the reeds] to wipe out the rebels who hung out in the extensive marsh systems."
After Saddam's fall, Alwash returned to his homeland and focused his energy on the operations of Eden Again. Workers breached Saddam's levies and began restoring the wetlands. Then they started looking at the bigger picture -- the whole watershed -- and Eden Again evolved into Nature Iraq.
"Azzam is doing great work with Nature Iraq developing nature tourism [birding in particular] and working on the environmental laws for this emerging democracy," said Nichols. "As I've done more research I've come to realize what these folks are doing right now -- working with the Ministry of the Environment to develop their first environmental laws, like the equivalent of our Clean Water Act, the basis of our work."
Google also brought Nichols to Azzam's Facebook page. After sending him a message, a couple of hours later that September morning they were FB friends and talking on the phone. "I told him, ‘You sound like a Waterkeeper.' Since then I've been working with him developing a proposal for membership."
What does Nature Iraq stand to gain from joining Waterkeeper Alliance? For Alwash, it's about connections.
"Everything in nature is connected," he said a couple of Sundays ago, calling from his second home, in Los Angeles, before returning to Iraq. "When we started working on the restoration of the marshes, we figured out pretty shortly that, in fact, the health of the marshes depends on the water upstream. The water upstream comes from the mountains of Turkey and passes through many, many areas of Iraq and Syria where pollution is introduced into the water, be it the sewage from cities, be it drainage water from irrigated farms, be it from people using the water to wash their cars, and so on."
As a result, caring for the watershed involves more than just Iraq. "Inside Iraq we're trying to create an organization that will take care of each tributary and the marshes," said Alwash. "That's just the initial step. Then hopefully we can work with like-minded organizations in Turkey and Syria ... that we hope will eventually grow to cover the entire basin of the Tigris and Euphrates."
Initially Nichols will be traveling to Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq, 100 miles upstream from Baghdad. "I'll be doing some strategic planning with them, meeting some community members and giving a talk at the American university there on how environmental laws work in the United States -- why clean water is so important," Nichols said.
On his way home from Iraq, Nichols will meet with activists from the Turkish environmental group Doga Dernegi (Nature Society) who have been working with Nature Iraq and have expressed interest in creating a Waterkeeper Turkey.
"And I hear there's a group in Syria who want to start one as well," he said. "It looks like there's a new dawn for environmentalism over there, which is a huge thing. There will be a big need for advocates. If you think about democratization of society, one thing you look at is resource use. Being on the ground floor of developing policy in those areas is going to be intense."
Alwash sees great potential in the alliance. But first he's looking at issues within Iraq.
"We have achieved quite a successful way of reaching the decision makers," he said. "Obviously Iraq [today] is much better suited for an open NGO and for a grassroots organization. So we are hopeful, but we don't take things for granted. We try to use our connections to make our point of view clear about what the government needs to do to protect the environment. That is not to say the government always listens to us."
He points to a government project involving 11 small hydropower dams on the Upper Tigris. He's been trying to convince government officials that the dams are not just bad for the river. "When you look at it from the economic point of view, it makes very little sense. It has more to do with politics than it has to do with economic viability. There are internal Iraqi pressures: Water in the north versus oil in the south. It's complicated."
He sees a parallel in the history of the American environmental movement. "Basically, in the '60s when the Sierra Club [was fighting against dams], people were thinking these tree-huggers are crazy for standing in the way of progress. We did not know then what dams really do to a river. It turned out the Sierra Club pioneers understood that nature cannot be regulated in the way water is regulated."