Iraq and Iran’s Hawizeh Marshes: threats and opportunities

Guest blog by Laith Ali Al-Obeidi of Nature Iraq

The joint Iraqi – Iranian survey team

The Hawizeh Marshes form a large part of the famous Mesopotamian marshlands. They lie in southern Iraq, east of Tigris River on the Iraqi-Iranian border. They make up the largest wetland in this area, and are internationally important for historical, cultural and ecological reasons. They are transboundary and shared between Iraq and Iran with the Iranian marshes known as Hor Al-Azim. They are fed from the Kharkeh River on the Iranian side (some 40-50%) and from two branches of the Tigris River: Al-Musharah and Al-Kahla’a near Amara city of Iraq.

The Hawizeh Marshes are ecologically healthier than the Central Marshes and Hammar Marshes as Hawizeh did not dry completely when the marshes were drained in the 1980s and the 1990s by the former regime. They were fortunate in having a water supply from Iran’s Kharkeh River. Hawizeh is considered one of the most important water ecosystems in the Middle East and of international importance due to its rich biological diversity and ecological suitability as a resting station for migratory and a breeding habitat for resident birds. It is one of the most important KBAs and IBAs in Iraq.

Due to their international importance the Hawizeh Marshes were included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2016. Prior to that, in 2007, they were included in the list of the wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention (Ramsar Site) when Iraq became a signatory to the Convention. On the same path, efforts were heightened after 2007 to protect the site following evaluation studies by a team from the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources and the Ramsar Convention Secretariat which showed the deterioration of the biological diversity, especially as a result of the 2011 drought that caused widespread devastation. The ministry further invited Ramsar to evaluate the marshes ecological status in 2014.

Recently, in December 2017, a further visit to Hawizeh by a delegation from the Ramsar Secretariat along with UNEP representatives, was concluded with a joint Iraqi – Iranian conference on actions for the preservation and sustainable development of Hawizeh and Hor Al-Azim.  This has led to an agreement for more open cooperation for the efficient management of these important and transboundary wetlands. As a result of that meeting came the first joint bird survey between the two countries from late January to early February in 2018 led by ornithologists from both countries.

Seven Iranian sites (Hor Al-Azim) and five Iraqi sites (Hawizeh Marshes) were visited, being hotspots that attract many bird species – both resident and migratory. In total 106 species were recorded, nine of which are Red Listed by BirdLife International and IUCN:

The Endangered Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis, the Vulnerable Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga, Marbled Duck Marmaronetta angustirostris and Common Pochard Aythya ferina and the Near Threatened Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca, Armenian Gull Larus armenicus, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa and Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica.

Greater Spotted Eagle Clanga clanga

Greater Spotted Eagle – one of the threatened wintering species in the Hawizeh Marshes.

Waterfowl represented the greatest number with 45,570 counted of 63 species recorded throughout the Iraqi and Iranian hotspots.

The Iranian side of the marshes harbored the highest number of birds due to water shortage and the drought conditions on the Iraq side which negatively impacted the numbers observed.

One of the Hor Al-Azim sites in Iran.

In spite of such international importance, the Hawizeh Marshes are facing a number of large scale threats, both internal and external. The main threat today is the decrease in water imports due largely to the construction of dams on the feeder rivers. The most serious is the Eliso dam on the Tigris River in Turkey. The dam will create a reservoir of 11 billion cubic meters in an area of ​​31 square kilometers. Report has it that the dam could seriously reduce the amount of water received by Iraq through Tigris River and this will greatly affect the sustainability of the Mesopotamian marshes especially Hawizeh, so dependent on this constant water flow. Additionally, the establishment of a 90 km soil dam on the Iranian side in 2011 impeded the entry of water thus adding to the serious drought conditions especially in the southeast and northeast areas of the Hawizeh Marshes. In addition there are other threats facing the marshes including water control along the Tigris River, decreasing rainfall, oil production around and within the marshes and the overhunting of birds and other animals.

The northern part of Iraq’s Hawizeh Marshes known as Birkat Al-Udheim which was dry during the survey

Finally, I hope that the international interest and effort to preserve its biodiversity by its inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Ramsar Site will help to save Hawizeh. We have seen that cooperation between Iraq and Iran biologists is assisting scientific studies of the wildlife and recently there has been further cooperation between Iraq and Iran in the form of a water share from the Iranian side which is such an important source of water for the marshes and their unique wildlife.

Laith Ali Al-Obeidi is a biologist with Nature Iraq and a member of the Threatened Waterfowl Specialist Group. He helped prepare the Southern Iraq section of the Key Biodiversity Areas of Iraq and is a lead researcher in numerous bird, mammal and environmental studies throughout the country. He has help lead wildlife training programmes for researchers, including in the use of camera trap for big mammals. Recently, under the supervision of BirdLife International, he directed the environmental project:  Helping to Protect the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Mesopotamian Marshes: Empowering Iraq’s first National Park. Having worked for over ten years in environmental protection and awareness, he recently represented Iraq in a joint study of the birds on the Iraqi and Iranian sides of the Hawizeh Marshes under the stewardship of the Ramsar Convention.

Al-Obeidi on Kharkeh River in Iran.

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