Continuing efforts to conserve the unique Iraqi Marshes

The Hawizeh Marsh Ramsar Site in southern Iraq was placed on the Montreux Record in April 2010 because of serious changes to its hydrology. This was due to a number of factors, particularly the construction of upstream dams and water control structures reducing water flow into the marshes, and a decline in rainfall. At the invitation of the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), a small Ramsar team visited the Hawizeh Marsh Ramsar Site from 14 to 16 February 2014 to assess the condition of the marshes and to propose solutions to the problems faced by the site.

The Hawizeh Marsh forms part of a larger complex of marshes in the southern part of Iraq that make up the Mesopotamian Marshes, the largest wetland in the region. These marshes are fed by water mainly from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that originate from as far north as Turkey before flowing into the Gulf. The site is famous for the traditions and culture of its people, who have lived on small islands and floating vegetation mats in the marshes for thousands of years, fishing and rearing buffaloes. The area is also well known for its biodiversity, supporting a number of threatened and endemic species.

Scene from the Hawizeh Marsh. Copyright: Lew Young

In the late 1990s, the marshes were drained by the government to force out the people after a period of civil unrest. After the fall of the government in 2003, a series of projects were implemented to reflood the marshes and today some 70% of the marshes have recovered and the original communities are returning. However, it is unlikely that the marshes will ever be reflooded to their original condition because rainfall has been declining and the upstream demand for water for hydropower, agriculture, industry and domestic use has been growing since the early 2000s. The drained areas of the marshes have increasingly been used for agriculture and oil production, with the latter contributing to about 95% of the country’s income.

The Ramsar team was hosted by the Centre for the Restoration of Iraqi Marshes and Wetlands, CRIMW (MoWR), the Ramsar Administrative Authority in Iraq and for the three days of the visit was based in Basra, making daily trips to the northern and southern sections of the Hawizeh Marsh and the surrounding marshes.

Elders of a village on the northern edge of Hawizeh Marsh Ramsar Site. Copyright: Clayton Rubec

Meetings were held with the local communities living by the Hawizeh Marsh as well as with one of the oil companies operating on the edge of the marsh to learn more about their existing operations, as well as their planned operations within the Ramsar Site boundary in the near future. These meetings highlighted the need to improve communication between the different stakeholder groups, including the oil sector. Iraq is dependent on oil for its future sustainable economic development but it is important to ensure that oil production respects local communities and the environment. Stakeholders also underlined the need to review the management of dams and other upstream water control structures to allow sufficient water to be released into the marshes to maintain ecological flow.

Fisherman’s hut in the marshes. Copyright: Lew Young

Throughout the mission, the Ramsar team was accompanied by representatives of CRIMW, MoWR, as well as of the Ministry of Oil, the Office of the Prime Minister, and of the Hawizeh Marsh local governments. Representatives from the NGO Nature Iraq also participated in the mission and shared their experience in working with the MoWR to reflood the marshes since the late 2000s.

Download the full mission report

Report by Lew Young, Senior Advisor for Asia-Oceania

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