Jan 18

One of the most important wetland habitats in the world is now facing a brighter future, thanks to the remarkable efforts of conservationists.

The Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq once covered over 15,000 square kilometres, and are thought to be the original ‘Garden of Eden’. Surrounded by deserts, these wetlands are of crucial importance to wildlife and people, providing a source of fresh water and a vital habitat for breeding and migrating birds.

Photo of Basra reed warbler

The Basra reed warbler breeds only in the Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq, and possibly in parts of Iran.

However, in the 1990s the marshes were drained by Saddam Hussein to punish the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes who had risen against him after the first Gulf War. Within months, these stunning wetlands had been reduced to less than 10 percent of their original size, with devastating effects on wildlife and people.

Fortunately, since the fall of Saddam efforts have been made to restore Iraq’s marshes. Led by Azzam Alwash, Nature Iraq has successfully managed to re-flood large sections of the marshes, and is working to re-establish both the wildlife and the Marsh Arab way of life.

Photo of marbled teal (marbled duck) on ground

A winter survey in 2010 counted 46,000 marbled teal (marbled duck) in Iraq’s marshes, around twice the previous estimate of the entire global population.

Surveys have shown the restoration efforts to be a success, with extensive reed-beds returning and bird populations increasing. Highlights include the sighting of a vast flock of marbled teal in an area where the species had not been seen for 20 years, while other birds which have benefitted include the Endangered Basra reed warbler and the endemic Iraq babbler, as well as the ferruginous duck, imperial eagle, great white pelican and greater flamingo.

Photo of great white pelicans in habitat

Great white pelicans are just one of the many species to have benefitted from the restoration of Iraq’s marshes.

However, these vital wetlands are now under renewed threat, with upstream dams disrupting water flow, increasing the salinity of the marshes and leading to a second wave of drying out. Together with a regional drought, this is threatening both the marsh restoration and the livelihoods of the Marsh Arabs who have returned to the area.

Photo of ferruginous duck on water

Iraq’s marshes are important breeding sites for species such as the ferruginous duck, which is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN.

Efforts are now underway to address these new threats, by building an embankment across the Euphrates River to raise water levels, until one of Saddam’s drainage canals can be shut down and the water redistributed to the marshes.

According to Azzam, “If we can restore the marshes, then we can restore Iraq. 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.

Miracle in the marshes of Iraq’ is a documentary following the incredible work of Nature Iraq in restoring the Mesopotamian Marshes, and is to be aired in the UK tonight, as part of BBC2’s Natural World series.

Read more about this story at BirdLife International.

Explore more endangered species from Iraq on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

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