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Iraq's Marshes Show Progress toward Recovery

05/11/2006 00:00:00
T he totally drained Central Marsh near Chibayish in June 2003.© Curt Richardson.
Reflooding of Iraq's destroyed Mesopotamian marshes since 2003 has resulted in a "remarkable rate of reestablishment" of native invertebrates, plants, fish, and birds, according to Curtis J. Richardson of Duke University and Najah A. Hussain of the University of Basrah.

Writing about fieldwork conducted over the past two years in four large marshes in southern Iraq, they note that water inflow from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has been greater than expected because of record snowpack melts, which has kept salinity levels low. The incoming water quality has been better than predicted, too, with toxin levels lower than had been feared. As a result, many native species have returned, including some rare bird species, although their numbers have not rebounded to historical levels.
Marsh Arab fishermen collecting reeds in a surviving section of the natural Al-Hawizeh Marsh. © Curt Richardson.
Iraq's marshes were devastated in the 1980s and 1990s by the Hussein regime's campaign to ditch, dike, drain, and burn them. Unable to pursue their traditional means of livelihood—fishing, herding water buffalo, and hunting—tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs fled to southern Iran.

The marshes were also once famous for their biodiversity and cultural richness. They were the permanent habitat for millions of birds and a flyway for millions more migrating between Siberia and Africa. Populations of rare species such as the marbled teal (40% to 60% of the world population) and the Basrah reed warbler (more than 90% of the world population), which had been thought close to extinction, were recently seen in a winter bird survey.
Curt Richardson in a mashuf, a Marsh Arab boat, collecting water samples during his 2004 visit to Iraq. © Curt Richardson.
US scientists undertook a first assessment of the status of the marshes in June 2003. They found massive but uncoordinated reflooding—local farmers had begun blowing up dikes and dams after the collapse of the Hussein regime in April 2003—and noted some reestablishment of native plants. Subsequent monitoring, done in collaboration with Iraqi scientists, estimated overall ecosystem health.

Richardson and Hussain report that 39 percent of the former extent of the marshes had been reflooded by September 2005. Despite incomplete data, the researchers found that in many respects the restored marshes they studied are functioning at levels close to those in one marsh that remained undrained. The fast recovery of plant production, overall good water quality, and rapid restoration of most wetland functions seem to indicate that the recovery of ecosystem function is well under way. Richardson and Hussain are not complacent about the marshes' future, however. The researchers point out that water inflow is unlikely to be sufficient to maintain the encouraging trends in coming years. Fish catches remain poor, which deters many Marsh Arabs from returning to a traditional way of life. Further research is needed—but is not being done, say Richardson and Hussain—to determine how the marshes and agriculture can share water, to identify sites of toxins, and to study insecticide use by local fishermen.

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