An extensive area of steppe to the west of Jabal Abdul Aziz and to the east and south-east of Skiro village (36°25'N 39°05'E), bounded by the Balikh valley to the west. In the 1960s there were seasonally inundated fresh and saline marshes in the Balikh valley, e.g. at Ali Bajiliyah, c.100 km north of Al-Raqqah. In the 1970s, there were extensive reedbeds and some open water at Skiro, and about 10 km north along the road from Skiro on the western side was Al-Sharkrak pond (c.1 ha). In the early 1980s there was an area of small permanent lakes (c.50 ha) called Waz Gol (36°31'N 39°01'E), fed by springs at Ayn al-Arus. Vegetation here, and probably elsewhere in the valley, consisted of Salix trees/bushes and stands of Phragmites, Lythrum, Carex and Luzula. However by 1992 (and perhaps as early as 1984) the lakes, springs, and river itself were all dry due to major and unsustainable water abstraction from the Balikh river for irrigation in Turkey and Syria. The continued existence of other wetland areas in the valley, of which the above are only representative examples, is thus in doubt. The majority of the steppe is cultivated with cereals and cotton and otherwise very heavily grazed by livestock; crop failures are common during droughts.
See box for key species. The site is ornithologically little-known. Possible breeding species in the Balikh valley in the 1970s included Glareola pratincola, Sterna albifrons, Merops superciliosus and Cercotrichas galactotes. Wintering species in the 1970s and early 1980s included an excellent diversity of waterfowl, including Anser albifrons and Grus grus. Ducks were reported to occur at Ali Bajiliyah in summer and 'large numbers' were present in winter (Savage 1968). Passage migrants in autumn in the 1980s included Tachybaptus ruficollis (200), Netta rufina, Circus aeruginosus (5) and Vanellus leucurus.
Non-bird biodiversity: No information.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The drainage of wetlands in the Balikh valley and the conversion of steppe to rain-fed and irrigated farmland, with associated intensification of agriculture, use of agrochemicals and increased levels of human disturbance, are critical problems. Hunting pressure on waterfowl and gamebirds, including Otis tarda, is apparently intense and uncontrolled. Phragmites reedbeds are burned to encourage re-growth for cattle grazing. If irrigation practises upstream become more sustainable in the future, it is possible that some of the valley wetlands might be rehabilitated. In the meantime, excessively heavy grazing, encroachment by cultivation, and associated human disturbance continue to degrade or destroy what little remains of these critically threatened wetlands and steppes.
Data-sheet compiled by Prof. Dr S. Bottema; translation of article by G. Keijl.