Central Marshes

Site description (1994 baseline):

Site location and context
The Central Marshes comprise a vast complex of mostly permanent freshwater marshes with scattered areas of open water, to the west of the River Tigris and to the north of the River Euphrates (30°50'N--31°30'N, 46°45'E--47°25'E). The marshes are fed by both rivers, and at maximum flooding in late spring they cover an area of about 3,000 km2. Almost the entire area is covered in tall reedbeds of Phragmites and Typha. Large portions of the marshes are difficult of access, and have seldom been visited by biologists. To the north, between the marshes and the Tigris, lies extensive cultivation, including rice fields and huge sugar-cane polders. The Ma'dan or Marsh Arabs have lived in these marshes for at least 5,000 years, but the majority have now been displaced by massive habitat destruction (see 'Conservation issues').

Key biodiversity
No comprehensive surveys of birds or wildlife have ever been undertaken. Georg and Vielliard visited the Al Azair area (in the north-east) in January 1967; Koning and Dijksen visited the Chabaish Marshes (in the south-east) in December 1972; Carp and Scott visited the Feraigat Marshes (in the north) and the Chabaish Marshes in January 1979. Other notable wintering species included Ciconia ciconia (103), Plegadis falcinellus (150) and Circus aeruginosus (73). The entire area was listed as a wetland of international importance by Carp (1980). Portions of this vast wetland which are, or were, known or thought to be of special importance for waterfowl include the following (comments on current status are based on study of a Landsat image from August 1992).

Feraigat Marshes (31°30'N 47°10'E) The north-easternmost section of the marshes, fed by flood waters from the Tigris. Known to support huge concentrations of wildfowl in winter (Savage 1968). In the 1950s Anser anser occasionally remained to breed. Much of this area has now been drained.

Al Azair Marshes (31°17'N 47°23'E) The north-easternmost section of the marshes, just west of the River Tigris. According to Savage (1968), this area of seasonal and permanent marshes was the principal known haunt of Oxyura leucocephala in Iraq. The village of Al Azair is also known as 'Ezra's Tomb' in earlier literature. These marshes have now been drained.

Haur Umm Al Binni Marshes (31°15'N 47°05'E) A large area of predominantly permanent marshes around Haur Umm Al Binni lake in the west-central part of the marshes. According to Savage (1968), these marshes were important habitat for wintering Aythya ferina. Marmaronetta angustirostris was reported to breed. Some of this area may now have been drained.

Fartus Marshes (31°10'N 46°55'E) Along the western edge of the Central Marshes. According to Savage (1968), this area, which includes the Sabil Al Awaidiya, was the habitat of large numbers of wintering Aythya ferina and Anser sp. Marmaronetta angustirostris was said to breed. This area may not yet have been affected by drainage.

Haur Az Zikri (31°10'N 47°10'E) The very large open-water lake in the centre of the marshes, said to be very important for wintering waterfowl (Savage 1968). This area may now have been drained.

Chabaish Marshes (31°00'N 47°00'E) A large area of permanent and temporary marshes in the south, including Haur Birkat (Birkat Baghdad), flooded both from the Tigris and the Euphrates (Savage 1968). This area may not yet have been affected by drainage.

Al Jazair Marshes (31°00'N 47°15'E) The extensive marshes on the north bank of the Euphrates before its confluence with the Tigris (Savage 1968). At least the eastern sector of these marshes has now been drained.

Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals: Lutra perspicillata (K; the subspecies L. p. maxwelli is endemic to the marshes and endangered), Gerbillus mesopotamiae (endemic), Erythronesokia bunnii (endemic).

2014 updates. Additional Important Bird Observations: During the surveys, 94 bird species were observed. In addition to those listed in the table, two Vulnerable species, Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga and Eastern Imperial Eagle A. heliaca were found wintering, as well as five Near Threatened species: Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca (summer and winter), Pallid Harrier Circus cyaneus, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa (passage and winter) and Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus (seen in winter 2013), but in sub-IBA threshold numbers. The endemic race of Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis iraquensis breeds widely. Other Important Fauna: Data were collected 2005-2010, but with more focused attention in 2007. The southern marshes lie at the center of the distribution of an isolated subspecies of smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli. Its status and distribution have been unclear due to confusion with the Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra (Near Threatened), which also occurs in the region. Recent surveys (Omer et al. 2012, Al-Sheikhly and Nader 2013) have confirmed the presence of smooth-coated otter in parts of the southern marshes for the first time since the 1950s-1960s and it is likely that this species occurs in the Central Marshes too, as well as other parts of the Tigris wetlands and marshes on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. Some notable mammals found during the surveys (and according to local reports) were: Rüppell's FoxVulpes rueppellii,Jungle Cat Felis chaus and Wild Cat Felis silvestris. Due to the availability of food and shelter, it seems the Central Marshes provide good habitat for the Endangered Rafetus euphraticus. Fish: Data were collected from 2005 through 2007 and again in 2009, during which18 species were found. These were: Acanthopagrus cf. arabicus, Acanthobrama marmid, Alburnus mossulensis, Carasobarbus luteus, Carassius auratus, Cyprinus carpio, Cyprinion kais, Heteropneustes fossilis, Leuciscus vorax, Liza abu, L. klunzingeri, Luciobarbus esocinus, L. xanthopterus, Mesopotamichthys sharpeyi, Tenualosa ilisha, Tilapia zillii and Silurus triostegus. The latter appears to be increasing. In addition Mastacembelus mastacembelus was also documented, which is of no economic importance but their conservation status in Iraq is unknown. This site contains a good population of an economically and local heritage important plant, Phragmites australis.

Habitat and land use
2014 updates. Chibaish Marshes were formerly freshwater marshes with many open areas and deep water (more than 3m) but nowadays are brackish with very dense submerged and emergent vegetation and shallow water. Eutrophication has led to oxygen depletion and fish mortality in the last few years. The open water area is adjacent to the road on the east and surrounded by reed beds in other directions; patches of reeds are also scattered inside the area. Small beds of Typha domingensis and Schoenoplectus litoralis also occur close to the road. Submerged plants cover much of the sediments in open water areas but most of them are decayed. Seven inlets from the Euphrates feed Chibaish Marshes and they serve as an outlet when the water level in the Euphrates falls below that in the marshes. Due to the sharp reduction in water levels in the Euphrates during 2009 and 2010, the Ministry of Water Resources, in collaboration with the local governments, constructed an embankment on the river in early summer 2010 to divert the water flow completely towards the Central Marshes. Abu Zirig, on the western side of the Central Marshes is a freshwater marsh with good water flow and discharge. The water source is from the Al-Gharraf River, a branch of the Tigris, and controlled by the Kut regulator. Water depth ranges from 0.5 to 1.5 m or more in the main rivers and waterways. It is close to Al-Islah city, southeast of Nasiria city. This area suffers from significant human disturbance such as reed harvesting, fishing, and bird hunting. Abu Zirig is known for the presence of dense vegetation in some areas, mainly Phragmites australis and Typha domingensis. It contains a canal extending north to south approximately 2 m deep and bordered on two sides by reed beds 2-3 m or more in height. There are areas close to the reed beds with dense and decayed submerged plants, and there is a narrow band in the middle where the current is strongest without plants and deeper than the rest of area. Fieldwork concerning the bird and fish populations at this site has been conducted since 2004 as a part of the New Eden Project. The other natural conditions in this marsh are good comparatively due to the availability of a stable and continuous amount of water. The Central Marshes, with their mix of landscapes (including open water, dense reed beds and mudflats) are very important for birdlife. They are a key area for wintering water birds, especially the globally Vulnerable Marbled Duck Marmaronetta angustirostris and an important breeding area for the restricted-range endemic Basra Reed Warbler Acrocephalus griseldis, Iraq Babbler Turdoides altirostris, and the Iraqi subspecies of Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis iraquensis. Thirteen sub-sites were surveyed, distributed throughout the Central Marshes. Some sites were visited in 2005–2010, while others were not visited due to the difficulties in reaching them when they were turned into either dry or muddy areas. Most of the surveys were concentrated in areas that did not dry out or only dried partially.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
No nature conservation measures are known to have been taken. Since 1991 intensive hydrological engineering activity has been occurring in the Central Marshes, leading to massive habitat destruction. According to reports in July 1993 and an unsourced satellite image made public in late 1993, a 35-km-long double embankment was built (and completed in July 1992) from the village of Al Jandallah (Maysan Governorate) south-eastwards to Abu Ajil (near the Qal'at Salih airfield), crossing most of the northern and north-eastern end of the Central Marshes, and thus blocking and diverting more than 40 distributary streams and rivers which formerly flowed into the marshes from the Tigris. This double levée joins the 'Al Amarah Canal' or 'Anfal 3' canal, which is another double embankment built for defensive purposes during the Iran-Iraq war (now converted into a drainage canal) and which runs southwards, just west of the Tigris, for 50 km before discharging into the Euphrates at Qurna. In addition, dykes were said to have been constructed up to 30 km into the marshes west of the Al Amarah Canal in 1992-1993, to compartmentalize areas of marsh and facilitate drainage, and it is also claimed that locks, sluice gates and flanking embankments 6-8 m high have been placed at the heads of many of the Tigris distributaries in order to regulate water flow into the marshes. Collectively these measures are said to have prevented water from entering up to two-thirds of the Central Marshes during 1992-1993; a Landsat satellite image from August 1992 showed more than one third of the marsh was dry, and in July 1993 it was claimed that this proportion had increased to two-thirds. The westernmost distributaries of the Tigris still appeared to be unimpeded and flowing into the surviving western sector of the Central Marshes on the August 1992 Landsat image, and this corridor is thus extremely important in sustaining what remains of the Central Marshes, and possibly also in supplying water from the Tigris to the Haur Al Hammar (site 039) further south. 2014 updates. Natural systems modification, human disturbance, and over-exploitation were ranked as the very highest threats. Construction of dams upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have a serious effect on this site, which suffers from a severe lack of water, especially in 2009-2010 when the water dropped to critical levels, destroying habitats by causing wide areas of wetland and reed beds to dry out. Hunting pressure is severe in some areas, and despite the extensive area of dense reed beds where ducks can hide hunting still causes high levels of disturbance. In addition, overfishing is common throughout the entire area along with the use of unsustainable fishing practices such as electro-fishing and fishing during spawning season. Other pressure of over-exploitation and consumption of biological resources is represented by unsustainable reed harvesting. Three threats were considered high: urban intensification, energy production, and pollution. Agricultural intensification and road construction were scored as medium threats. Though the KBA team did not assess the threats caused by invasive species, during surveys between 2005 and 2010, it was obvious from examining the regular fish catch that introduced and invasive Tilapia spp. (Family: Cichlidae) have been released or somehow reached the area. By the end of the survey period, Tilapia spp. formed the majority of the catch for most fishermen in the Central Marshes, displacing many of the native species.

Protected areas
2014 updates. This site, especially the proposed National Park area (NEPIWR 2010), is a key part of the southern marshes complex and needs a stable and adequate water supply and effective protection from hunting and disturbance to maintain its value. In July of 2013, the Iraq Council of Ministers approved the designation of a portion of the Central Marshes as Iraq’s first National Park. Key to protection of the area will be the full implementation of the management plan for the area.

Information compiled by Dr D. A. Scott and D. J. Brooks, reviewed by Dr Khalid Y. Al-Dabbagh and Dr Hanna Y. Siman.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Important Bird Area factsheet: Central Marshes. Downloaded from on 23/09/2023.