Haur Al Hammar

Year of compilation: 1994

Site description
The Haur Al Hammar, its surrounding marshes and neighbouring haurs and areas of temporary inundation comprise some 3,500 km2 of almost contiguous wetland habitat. The haur itself is the largest lake in the lower Euphrates, approximately 120 km long by up to 25 km wide. It is bordered in the north by the River Euphrates, in the west by the Southern Desert and in the east by the Shatt Al Arab. The lake is eutrophic, and generally shallow with a maximum depth of about 1.8 m at low-water levels in early winter and about 3.0 m at high-water levels in late spring. Large parts of the littoral zone dry out during periods of low water and banks and islands appear in many places. The hydrology of the lake is not clear: its main source of water re-charge appears to be the Euphrates, but it may also receive a very substantial amount of water from the Tigris via the Central Marshes (see site 038), and there is presumably also some re-charge from groundwater. The Euphrates flows through the marshes and joins the Tigris at Qarmat Ali, where the combined flow becomes the Shatt Al Arab. Habitats include open, fairly shallow water, vast reedbeds, broad muddy shores, sedge marsh and marsh-edge vegetation, moist arable land, irrigation ponds, rainwater pools, communication dams, artificial islands with villages, rice and sugar-cane polders and date-palm groves. Emergent vegetation is dominated by beds of Phragmites and Typha with some Cyperus papyrus and Arundo, as well as many other aquatics, both floating (Nymphoides, Nymphaea, Nuphar, Pistia, Lemna) and submerged (Vallisneria, Potamogeton, Myriophyllum, Ceratophyllum, Chara, Najas, Salvinia). The marshes are rich in fish, and an estimate of the annual catch, published in 1966, was 30,000 tonnes, of which 70% were Cyprinidae. The local people, the Ma'dan (Marsh Arabs), are ethnologically and culturally distinct, and have lived in the area for at least 5,000 years. Fishing and wildfowl hunting are a major part of the local economy, and there is considerable dependence on reeds for forage for domestic buffalo, for house building and for the construction of floating islands for villages.

Key biodiversity
Haur Al Hammar and its associated marshes comprise one of the most important areas for waterfowl in the Middle East, both in terms of numbers of birds and diversity of species. The vast reedbeds provide breeding habitat for a wide variety of resident species, while in winter the haur attracts huge numbers of migratory waterfowl. Koning and Dijksen (1973) visited the wetland at various points in December 1972 -- near the villages of Hammar and Fuhud and at three localities east of Nasiriya -- and confirmed that this was the most important wintering area for waterfowl in Iraq. Carp visited the east end of the haur and Haur Aluwez in January 1972, while Carp and Scott visited the east end, the south-western shore, Haur Aluwez, the west end near Nasiriya and the Fuhud and Hammar areas in January 1979. P. Ctyroký made some waterfowl counts in the area in 1979. The entire area was listed by Carp (1980) as a wetland of international importance.

In general, the large open areas of water are too deep for most species of wintering waterfowl other than pelicans, diving ducks, Fulica atra, gulls and terns. The vast and almost unbroken reedbeds of Typha and Phragmites probably support large breeding populations of species such as Nycticorax nycticorax, Ardeola ralloides, Ardea purpurea, Gallinula chloropus, Porphyrio porphyrio and Fulica atra, as well as smaller numbers of Anser anser, but there is very little information on breeding species, and that which exists dates mostly from the 1920s or before. The broad, muddy shoreline along the southern edge of the main Haur Al Hammar provides excellent habitat for shorebirds, while sedge marshes and marsh-edge habitat to the east and west of the main haur are particularly suitable for herons, egrets, Platalea leucorodia, Plegadis falcinellus, dabbling ducks and some shorebirds. Moist arable land, irrigation ponds and rain-water pools on the surrounding plains provide excellent feeding areas for geese, dabbling ducks, Grus grus and many shorebirds. The site supports large numbers of wintering birds of prey, including Circus aeruginosus (185) and Aquila clanga (8). Passerines wintering in large numbers include Anthus spinoletta, Luscinia svecica, Lanius isabellinus and Passer hispaniolensis. There is almost no ornithological information from spring and autumn, but the site is likely to be equally as important for migratory waterfowl in these seasons as in winter. Flocks of up to 800 Phalaropus lobatus have been seen on Haur Al Hammar in late spring.

Portions of this vast wetland which are or were of special importance for waterfowl include the following (comments on present status are based on study of a Landsat image from August 1992).

Eastern end of Haur Al Hammar (30°35'N 47°45'E) The eastern end of Haur Al Hammar near its outlet comprised a vast expanse of shallow, open water with fringing reedbeds and reed islands. This area was especially important for ducks and Fulica atra: over 30,000 were present in January 1979. Much of this area has now been drained.

Haur Aluwez (30°30'N 47°35'E) This comprised the vast marshlands and open water areas in the south-east. Haur Aluwez was especially important for pelicans, diving ducks and coots. The 1975 survey recorded 1,300 pelicans in this area; the 1979 survey found over 40,000 ducks, mainly Aythya fuligula, and 73,000 Fulica atra, as well as large numbers of shorebirds and gulls. Much of this area has now been drained.

South-west shore of Haur Al Hammar (30°40'N 46°55E) The extensive mudflats which stretch for over 50 km along the south-western shore of the haur provide excellent habitat for shorebirds. Over 8,000 shorebirds, mainly Charadrius alexandrinus, Calidris minuta and C. alpina, were recorded along a short stretch of this habitat in January 1979. Of particular interest were six Numenius tenuirostris. Some of this area has now been drained.

Fuhud and Hammar area (30°57'N 46°46'E) The extensive reedbeds and open water areas in the region of Fuhud and Hammar villages in the north-west are especially important for pelicans and dabbling ducks. The 1979 survey recorded over 1,500 pelicans and 30,000 dabbling duck in this area, along with a day roost of about 1,000 Nycticorax nycticorax.

Nasiriya Marshes (31°00'N 46°25'E) These permanent and temporary marshes in dead branches of the Euphrates near Nasiriya are a continuation of the main Haur Al Hammar marshes to the east. They are important for a wide variety of waterfowl, notably herons, egrets and dabbling ducks.

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

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
No nature conservation measures are known to have been taken. Flood control, drainage and irrigation projects upstream on the Euphrates in central Iraq, Turkey and Syria have been progressively reducing the amount of water flowing in the Euphrates and thus into the marshes, especially from the 1970s onwards, and the extent of permanent wetland is likely to have contracted -- according to one report, by 10% between 1985 and 1990. In January 1975 a large part of Haur Aluwez had been cut off from the main wetland by a 10-km-long embankment and was being drained to facilitate oil exploration. By 1985, more than 80,000 ha of marsh at the north-eastern end of Haur Al Hammar had been drained in order to exploit the West Qurnah oilfield. Haur Aluwez is one of the parts of Haur Al Hammar most affected by drainage schemes in recent years, and satellite images from 1984 and August 1992 show that much of this area has now been drained, as has much of the extreme eastern end of Haur Al Hammar near its outflow in to the Shatt Al Arab, as well as extensive areas of the southern shores of Haur Al Hammar.

In addition, a huge canal (the 'Third River') was completed in December 1992, extending c.560 km from Mahmudiya (near Baghdad) south-east down the right bank of the Shatt Al Gharraf, crossing the Euphrates downstream of Nasiriya, skirting round the south-western boundary of Haur Al Hammar before bisecting the south-eastern corner (flanked by raised embankments), and finally discharging into the man-made Shatt Al Basrah canal, which itself links Haur Al Hammar to the sea via Khawr Al Zubair. Much of the drainage of the southern and south-eastern shores of Haur Al Hammar appears to have followed, and/or to have been facilitated by, the isolation of these areas from the rest of the Haur by the embanked Third River. Since 1991 a large earth dam has been built across the Euphrates near the canal's intersection point near Suq Al Shuyukh, as well as another dam c.70 km downstream near Al Madinah; their exact function is not clear. The Third River is intended to drain saline water resulting from the planned washing of 1.5 million hectares of salt-encrusted soil (potential farmland) in the area between the two rivers in central Iraq, and may have already started taking saline water away from smaller, previously functioning irrigation waste-water canals that were formerly discharging directly into Haur Al Hammar. However, it has been claimed that almost the entire flow of the Euphrates has been diverted into the canal and hence into the Gulf (thus completely depriving the marshes of one of their major water sources), either at the point where the canal intersects the river, or at the recently built earth dam nearby. Aerial photos from 1990 indicate that the canal, at that time, was being engineered to pass under the river via an inverted siphon, hence avoiding discharge of saline water into the Euphrates and thence into Haur Al Hammar, but the role of the associated earth dam in any river diversion is still unclear.

A smaller canal, the 'Fourth River', was completed at around the same time as the Third River; this abstracts some of the Euphrates' flow from upstream of Nasiriya, reducing pressure on the new earth dam downstream, and empties it into Khawr Al Zubair, thus depriving Haur Al Hammar of some of its water supply. In addition, according to reports in 1993, a continuous embankment has been built along at least the right bank of the Euphrates (possibly both banks) along much of the northern border of Haur Al Hammar (between the two, new earth dams mentioned above) sometime since 1991, thus greatly hindering any annual re-charge of floodwater into the haur which normally occurs in late spring.

The salinity of Haur Al Hammar has apparently increased in recent years, especially near its outflow into the Shatt Al Arab. Hunting occurs on a massive scale; for example in the winter of 1991-1992, over 40,000 ducks and over 40,000 Fulica atra were estimated to have been sold in the markets of Karbala and Najaf, most of these probably having come from Haur al Hammar and Bahr Al Milh. However, at least in the 1970s, this did not clearly pose a serious threat to waterfowl populations because of the vastness of the area. Hunting was said to have been banned completely in Iraq in 1974, although this has not been effective. There is a possibility of major pollution from oil production, and small-scale oil pollution from the motor boats used between the main villages is common.

At the suggestion of the Vice President of the University of Basra, the IWRB/Basra University Expedition of 1979 recommended the establishment of a protected area at Haur Al Hammar; no measures are known to have been proposed by government agencies.

Data-sheets compiled by Dr Hanna Y. Siman, Dr D. A. Scott and Pavel Ctyroky.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Haur Al Hammar. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 27/01/2022.