Marshlands of Iraq

The wetlands in the middle and lower basin of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq were the most extensive wetland ecosystems in the Middle East. The wetlands region extends from of Basra to 150 km of Baghdad in the center of the country and covers 15,000sq km. It is made up of inter-connected shallow freshwater lakes, marshes and seasonally flooded plains. Flooding is caused by winter rains in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates in southern Turkey, Syria and northern Iraq. Water levels reach their maximum in early spring and then fall by as much as two meters during the hot dry summer. The largest marshes are:

1) Haur Al Hammer and the brackish Al Hammar Lake (350,000 ha) south of the Euphrates.

2) the Central Marshes (300,000 ha), consisting of permanent lakes and marshes north of the Euphrates and west of the Tigris.

3) Haur Al Hawizeh (220,000 ha) which extends east from the Tigris into Iran.

These wetlands eventually drain into the Arabian Gulf through the Shatt al Arab waterway.

It is surprising what the marshes have endured: they were drained in the 1950s. Tigris and Euphrates waters were diverted for agricultural and for military purposes. Dams on the Euphrates in Turkey and Syria reduced the amount of water and flooding to the wetlands of lower Iraq.

Hydrological engineering projects dried out of the wetlands in the Central Marshes and Haur Al Hammar. In 1980 the Iran-Iraq war, in 1990 the first Gulf War, then another network of dykes and channels in 1991, and the second Gulf war in 2003 have all contributed to the destruction of the marshes and the lifestyle of the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs. By 2000, 90% of Iraq’s marshes had disappeared.

From early civilization in Mesopotamia 6000 years ago, an irrigation system was developed and the floodplains were cultivated with rice and vegetables and cereals. The people of the marshes depend on reeds to build their houses. Water buffalo graze on wetland vegetation, and aquatic plants provide fodder during the winter months. Waterfowl hunting and commercial harvesting have long provided a livelihood, the rivers and lakes provide fish.

The previous Iraqi government did not have a wetlands conservation strategy. There were laws prohibiting fishing during the spawning season but the law is not enforced. Iraq is a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, but has not yet designated any natural World Heritage Sites.

In 2003, the local populations started to breach the dykes which had taken water away from the marshes. By 2004, United Nations data showed that around 37% of the original area of the area has been restored to its original condition. Drinking water, sanitation projects were under way.

BirdLife International has identified 42 sites in Iraq as "Important Bird Areas", all but eight of which are wetland areas.
Vegetation in the marshes of southern Iraq is mainly reeds, bulrushes, and sedge. The marshes have rich underwater vegetation; water lilies and duckweed cover the surface. The underwater vegetation supports shrimp and many species of fish.

Many large mammal species were found in the marshes at the end of the twentieth century: wild boar, otter, jackal, red fox, Indian mongoose, gray wolf, honey badger, striped hyena, goitred gazelle and Indian crested porcupine. But lions had been wiped out early in the century when World War I introduced rifles to the area. Small mammals found in the marshes at the end of the century included rats, mice, gerbils, hedgehogs and bandicoots.