The Marshes of Iraq


Cory Zellers, Bryan McKinley, and Stefanie Hubbard

Prepared for ES567 and GE540 May 8, 2003

Map of Iraq showing water diversion and wetland region. Image from

In 2000, the United Nations Environment Programme's Division of Early Warning and Assessment showed that 90% of the Mesopotamia Marshes had disappeared. In March of 2003, more studies were presented at the World Water Forum that indicated one third of the remaining 10% had disappeared in the past three years. The marshlands known as the Hawr Al-Hawizeh in Iraq and the Hawr Al-Azim in Iran, are now just 7% the size they once were. These marshlands now contain a handful of the species that once made the area home. The marshlands that once acted like a giant water-treatment system that released clean water to the Persian Gulf are now nearly 20,000 square kilometers of desert.

The destruction of the marshes started in 1991, after the first Persian Gulf War, when the uprising Shi'ite rebels took refuge in the marshes of southern Iraq. In an effort to flush out the rebels, Saddam Hussein built two canals to divert river flows from the marshlands into the desert. Along with the canals Hussein also built dams upstream from the marshes and also burned much of the area. As a result the many of the native people and wildlife have been forced out or killed. The Persian Gulf fishing industry has also suffered because of the loss of nutrients that flowed from the marshes.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in restoring the wetlands. The Iraq Foundation, a U.S. Iraqi Opposition organization, has founded the Eden Again project to develop a plan to recover the Mesopotamian Marshlands. This project, funded by a $200,000 U.S. State Department grant, has many of the worlds top wetland scientists and several Iraqi engineers onboard to design the framework for restoration. The Eden Again project scientists hope to head to Iraq in June of 2003 to determine whether a desert twice the size of Rhode Island can be turned back into a thriving wetland. Much information is unknown about the river flow rates because the Iraqi government made such information confidential.

Over 50,000 indiginous people once called the marshes home. Pictured are their houses constructed from marsh reeds. Image from

These marshlands now contain a handful of the species that once made the area home. Several of these unique species, like the smooth-covered otter and the bandicoot rat may now be extinct. Fishes from the coastal fisheries depended on the marshes for spawning. Migratory birds from Asia, Europe, and South Africa which used to flock to the marshes, now have no where to go. The marshes are also home to many endangered species which now have an even lesser chance of survival. It is estimated that over 40 species of waterfowl and migratory birds are now threatened. This is directly due to the destruction of the wetlands.

False-color composites made by a Multi-Spectral Scanner aboard Landsat. Dark red areas show marsh vegetation. Notice the drastic reduction of the marsh area. Although the images span 27 years, the actual destruction of the marshes only took about 10 years. Images from http://visibleearth.nasa. gov/cgi-bin/viewrecord?9687

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Fritz, Mark (2003). "Iraqi Marshlands Hold Key to Post-War Plans." Retrieved April 10,2003, from,1250,KNS_9116_1868291,00.html

Radford, Tim (2001). "Marsh Arab Civilisaton Disappearing as Iraqi Wetlands are Drained." Retrieved April 10,2003, from http//,3858,4188924,00.html

Silverman, Vicki (2003). "Saddam Hussein Has Destroyed 90 Percent of Wetlands Heritage." Retrieved April 10, 2003, from http//