Mesopotamian marshes

Country/Territory Iran, Islamic Republic of,Iraq
Area 130,000 km2
Altitude 0 - 100m
Priority high
Habitat loss major
Knowledge incomplete

General characteristics

The Mesopotamian marshlands are one of the most extensive wetland ecosystems in western Eurasia. They comprise a complex of interconnected, shallow, freshwater lakes, marshes and seasonally inundated floodplains following the lower courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, extending from Baghdad in the north to the Basrah region in the south. The boundaries of the EBA fall largely within Iraq but also extend into extreme south-west Iran (Khuzestan province). Throughout these wetlands, the emergent vegetation is dominated by reeds Phragmites, reedmace Typha and papyrus Cyperus, and there is a rich submerged flora of aquatic plants.

Restricted-range species

Two restricted-range species are endemic to this EBA. Turdoides altirostris is confined to the lower Tigris and Euphrates valleys of central and southern Iraq and extreme south-west Iran. Its distribution is centred on the reedbeds of the marshes although it also occurs in rural habitats along rivers and irrigation canals. Acrocephalus griseldis is a summer visitor, breeding in reedbeds between Baghdad and Basrah, and wintering in central East Africa.

A further two widespread waterbirds have subspecies which are endemic to this EBA: Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis iraquensis and African Darter Anhinga rufa chantrei. Mesopotamian Crow Corvus (corone) capellanus, also endemic to this EBA, is a very distinct taxon within the Carrion/Hooded Crow complex, which could possibly be a good species (Madge and Burn 1993).

Species IUCN Category
Basra Reed-warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) EN
Iraq Babbler (Argya altirostris) LC

Important Bird Areas (IBAs)
IBA Code Site Name Country
Haur Al Hachcham and Haur Maraiba Iraq
Haur Al Hammar Iraq
Shatt Al Arab marshes Iraq
IQ025 Taq Taq Iraq
IQ035 Chamchamal Iraq
IQ047 Mahzam and Al-Alam Area Iraq
IQ050 Haditha Wetlands and Baghdadi Iraq
IQ052 Samara Wetlands Iraq
IQ058 Razzaza Lake Iraq
IQ060 Hindiya Barrage Iraq
IQ062 North Ibn Najm Iraq
IQ063 Ibn Najm Iraq
IQ064 Dalmaj Marsh Iraq
IQ065 Gharraf River Iraq
IQ069 Sinnaf Seasonal Wetlands Iraq
IQ072 Auda Marsh Iraq
IQ073 Hawizeh Iraq
IQ075 Central Marshes Iraq
IQ076 West Hammar Iraq
IQ077 East Hammar Iraq
IQ081 Khor Az-Zubayr Iraq
IQ082 Fao Iraq
IR059 Dez river marshes and plains Iran, Islamic Republic of

Threat and conservation

There has been considerable loss of wetland habitat in this EBA owing to large-scale projects for flood control, drainage and irrigation (Maltby 1994). Many large dams and barrages have been installed on the upper and lower Tigris and Euphrates (in Iraq and in neighbouring Turkey and Syria), and an elaborate network of canals has been constructed for irrigation of the fertile alluvial plains between the two rivers. In addition, water from the Euphrates has been diverted away from the marshes into a huge man-made canal, the 'Third River', which discharges irrigation waste-water directly into the Gulf. These measures-together with the recent building of high embankments along both rivers and compartmentalization of the marshes with dykes-are said to have prevented water from entering up to two-thirds of the marshes during 1992-1993, and satellite images show huge areas drying up (Evans 1993, Pearce 1993).

Increasing salinity is another serious threat, owing to the continuous flushing of salts from irrigated land via the drainage canals. Wetlands have also been degraded owing to regional conflicts, such as the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), when much of the fighting took place in and around the Mesopotamian wetlands, resulting in extensive burning, heavy bombing and the widespread use of chemical weapons. Levels of pollution have also increased substantially through the use of insecticides (as a quick method of poisoning and catching large quantities of fish) and the introduction of motorboats. In addition, the increased settlement throughout the region, coupled with improved access, will undoubtedly have resulted in wildlife being subjected to more disturbance and higher levels of hunting and persecution.

Despite these changes, both of the endemic species are still common in the suitable habitat that remains, but they are judged to be Near Threatened because of continuing habitat loss and degradation. The region is probably extremely important also for one threatened widespread species, Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris (classified as Vulnerable), which has a major breeding population (perhaps thousands of pairs) within the EBA-although this population may currently be highly threatened by habitat degradation and is totally unprotected; this number is possibly more than breeds in any other single state, and the EBA may also be important for the species in winter (Green 1993).

The EBA is also one of the most important areas in western Eurasia for the wintering and staging of waterbirds (especially from western Siberia), for wintering raptors, and as a refuge for waterfowl during periods of exceptionally severe weather further north. Threatened and Near Threatened species with important populations which winter in the marshes include Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus (classified as Vulnerable; c.10% of the world population), Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus (Near Threatened; c.10% of the flyway population, current breeding status in this EBA obscure) and Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca (Vulnerable; c.5-10% of the world population). In addition, Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca (Vulnerable) is a scarce winter visitor, White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla (Near Threatened) is likely to winter in small numbers, Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga (Vulnerable) is a fairly common winter visitor and Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris (Critical) may also winter (only three records, but coverage by ornithologists has been poor). The marshes are also home to small and very isolated populations of two Afrotropical species (Goliath Heron Ardea goliath and Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus) and hold a significant proportion of the world breeding populations of Grey Hypocolius Hypocolius ampelinus and Dead Sea Sparrow Passer moabiticus.

Evans (1994) has identified 12 Important Bird Areas in lower Mesopotamia as being of global and/or regional importance for bird populations. The largest and most important wetland systems within the EBA include: Haur al Hammar and its associated marshes south of the Euphrates (3,500 km2); the central marshes, a vast complex of permanent lakes and marshes north of the Euphrates and west of the Tigris (3,000 km2); and Haur al Hawizeh and its associated marshes, east of the Tigris extending into Iran (2,200 km2). These areas are currently unprotected although it has been recommended that some form of conservation area or special wetland management zone be established urgently.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2021) Endemic Bird Areas factsheet: Mesopotamian marshes. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 07/12/2021.