JO009
Azraq


Year of compilation: 1994

Site description
The only permanent, natural wetland in the Jordanian desert, 85 km east of Amman, and one of very few such sites in the Arabian peninsula. A (formerly) permanent, spring-fed marshland near the village of South Azraq (Azraq Wetland Reserve, 31°50'N 36°50'E, 1,255 ha) with a large, adjacent, seasonal playa-lake to the south-east (Qa al Azraq, 30°50'N 36°53'E, c.6,000 ha). The site also includes some artesian pools with associated marshland (31°51'N 36°50'E, 50 ha) and fishpools (31°49'N 36°48'E, 100 ha).

Until heavily degraded in recent years (see 'Conservation issues'), the Azraq Wetland Reserve was a flat area of pools, marshes, water meadows and silt dunes. Plant cover was very varied, including dense stands of Juncus, Carex, Typha, Scirpus, Cyperus and Arundo in the wetland, and bushes of Nitraria and Tamarix on the silt dunes. Similar marshland also formerly occurred around the springs at the village of North Azraq.

Qa al Azraq is a low-lying, enclosed basin which is seasonally flooded by c.10 wadis after winter rains over a catchment area of c.13,000 km2. A temporary, shallow, freshwater lake (max. depth 1.25 m) is formed, with a flat, muddy margin of up to 35 km circumference and scattered islands (the mounds of dry-season saltworkings). The water never overspills into the adjacent freshwater marsh of the Wetland Reserve, and the lake does not drain into and re-charge the underlying aquifer, instead remaining for several months (good aquatic invertebrate populations develop during this time) while becoming increasingly brackish as it dries out to form a siltflat, usually by mid-May. The basin is barren of vegetation when dry, except for salt-tolerant herbs (Halopeplis, Halocnemum) around the edges.

The artesian pools are an variable area of standing water of variable extent, fed by a small artesian borehole drilled in 1963 and still flowing. There is a small area of Tamarix bushes surrounded by damp to wet meadow/marshland with grass and other low vegetation. The fishpools were recently excavated in low-relief, silt desert on the edge of Qa al Azraq, with muddy shore and islands, fringed with reeds Phragmites when water levels are not high.

The oasis is a major crossroads for highways running between Amman, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and Iraq, and the level of human activity is high, there being two large settlements, North Azraq (formerly called Druze) and South Azraq (formerly Shishan), as well as a military base. The oasis is a major social and economic resource to Jordan, being one of the largest and most exploited sources of water for human consumption in the country. Cultivation is extensive in former silt desert surrounding the wetlands, irrigated from private wells. Qa al Azraq supports a substantial salt industry; regulated wildfowl hunting occurs in winter. Large numbers of sheep, goats and camels are watered and grazed in the remains of the marshland at Azraq Wetland Reserve and the artesian pools. Small-scale fish farming occurs at the fishpools.

Key biodiversity
See box for key species. Other species which currently breed (mostly less than 10 pairs for the waterbirds) include Rallus aquaticus, Charadrius dubius, C. leschenaultii, Vanellus spinosus, V. leucurus, Sterna nilotica, S. albifrons, Pterocles senegallus, Caprimulgus aegyptius, Ramphocoris clotbey, Calandrella brachydactyla, C. rufescens, Eremophila bilopha, Oenanthe deserti and Rhodopechys obsoleta. Large numbers of birds of prey are attracted to drink at the pools on autumn migration, including Pernis apivorus (14, September) and Circus pygargus (66, September). Currently, Qa al Azraq still supports internationally important numbers of wintering and spring migrant waterfowl in years of good rain (e.g. more than 20,000 waterfowl in winter 1991/2). The artesian pools and fishpools support important numbers of a few species of non-breeding waterbirds, especially during spring migration, and are the only remaining permanent wetland habitat now that the Wetland Reserve is almost dry. They are thus very attractive to all kinds of passage migrants, especially during the very dry autumn period. Azraq has been relatively well-studied and over 300 species have been recorded, a very high total.

The Wetland Reserve is currently lacking importance for waterbirds, due to the drying up of the springs. In the 1960s, before the permanent marshland was so severely degraded, the Wetland Reserve was an important breeding site for many waterbird species and together with Qa al Azraq supported up to c.350,000 wintering wildfowl, predominantly Anas penelope, A. crecca, A. acuta and Fulica atra. However by the 1978/79 winter only 2,500 wildfowl were present in the reserve, and by the 1990/91 winter less than 100-200.

The site was listed as a wetland of international importance by Carp (1980).

Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals: Canis lupus (V); Caracal caracal (rare) and Gazella gazella (V) are thought to be recently extinct. Reptiles: Varanus griseus (rare) occurred in the surrounding desert, at least formerly. Formerly the Wetland Reserve supported a relatively rich fauna and flora, including important and highly isolated or endemic populations of fish, invertebrate and plant species; many species may not have survived the ongoing degradation of the marsh.



Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Azraq Wetland Reserve was established in 1977 with all-round fencing and a resident warden, and a management plan was produced in 1979. However, the ecological character of the spring-fed wetlands at Azraq has greatly deteriorated over the last 15-20 years, although the playa lake of Qa al Azraq still qualifies as an internationally important wetland under Ramsar Convention criteria. Excessive pumping of water from Azraq’s upper aquifer to supply Amman and Irbid with drinking water, and to irrigate private farmland locally, has lowered the water-table and completely dried up the springs at North Azraq and South Azraq (in the Wetland Reserve); in the 1960s the latter were discharging 12.4 million cubic metres of water per year. The previously permanent pools, marshes and water meadows have dried out completely, and most of the aquatic vegetation has died off. Any remaining important species of aquatic fauna and flora are now in imminent danger of extinction. Until recently the remnants of the aquatic vegetation were very heavily grazed by livestock, and by feral horses and water-buffalo (now removed), and were regularly burnt to promote growth for grazing. Large quantities of rubbish have been dumped in the Reserve, due to its fence being in great disrepair. The over-exploitation of the aquifer has now led to increasing salinization of its water as well as of soils. The Ramsar site was subject to the Ramsar Monitoring Procedure in 1990, which resulted in specific recommendations to halt and reverse the deterioration of the Wetland Reserve. A project agreement to rehabilitate the Wetland Reserve has recently been signed by the Jordanian government, the RSCN and the UNDP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility.

Qa al Azraq is unprotected, being almost completely outside the Wetland Reserve boundary, but c.1,000 ha is part of the Ramsar site. Although the qa is still capable of flooding to full capacity, as for example in 1990/91 and 1991/92, Wadi Rajil (considered to be the main source of floodwater) has been dammed in several places upstream in Syria since the 1970s and also recently in Jordan 45 km north of Azraq, all of which is thought to have generally reduced the extent of flooding of the qa. Extraction of clay minerals may occur in the future and might be a local threat.

The artesian pools and fishpools also lie outside the Azraq Wetland Reserve boundary fence, close to the town, and are unprotected. Overexploitation of the regional aquifer is also drying out the artesian marsh, and since the fishpools are supplied from the same source, any further pumping to supply Amman is a critical threat to both areas. Excessive disturbance by hunters, herders and livestock is a major problem at both areas.

Acknowledgements
Data-sheet compiled by Ian J. Andrews.


Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Azraq. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 13/08/2022.