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The Marshes in the 20th Century

The Marshes in the 20th century
Photo 1: Marshes Life (Source: Ziad Sameer, Flickr).

The most important development in the 20th century was the establishment of modern water controls in the Tigris and Euphrates basins. This led to a decrease in the great floods that had affected Iraq and consequently also the marshes. In addition, irrigation projects played an active role in determining the courses of the Tigris and Euphrates and their branches. A good indicator of the dramatic decrease in the water flow in southern Iraq is an evaluation of the current water use[1] in all the riparian countries (Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq): of the natural annual volume of about 90 billion cubic metres available in the entire watershed, about 60% is used by agriculture, 10% is used by municipalities and industries, 15% is lost due to evaporation in lakes and reservoirs, with the remaining 15% left for environmental purposes, including the marshlands (Figure 1).

  • Environment and marshes
  • Irrigation
  • Municipalities
  • Industry
  • Evaporation
  • Other

Figure 1. Current water use in the Tigris-Euphrates watershed.

Impact of dams

Since the marshlands are located at the tail end of the Tigris-Euphrates watershed, water storage and control projects are the main projects impacting on the wetlands. Hindiya Barrage on the Euphrates was inaugurated in 1913. This structure controlled the distribution of water downstream. It also controlled water and its distribution among the agricultural fields that were not a part of the marshes. This greatly affected the amount of water flowing to the Hammar Marsh. As far as the other marshes are concerned, Kut Barrage was constructed in 1938, which directed more water flow to supply irrigation for agriculture, thereby decreasing the amount of water flowing from the Tigris into the Central and Hawizeh marshes. Since the 1950s, Iraq has embarked on the construction of a number of new control infrastructure projects, including Samarra Barrage (on the Tigris) and Ramadi Barrage (on the Euphrates), which have diverted excess water towards natural depressions. Haditha Dam on the Euphrates and Mosul Dam on Tigris were completed in the 1980s. Similarly, Turkey and Syria initiated dam construction projects in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1990, the GAP project in Turkey went online, significantly impacting the Euphrates’ flow. At the same time, Iran implemented a massive impairment of the Tigris tributaries.

This occurred mainly in the 1950s in Iraq and in the 1980s and 1990s in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Most recently, in 2016, the controversial Ilisu Dam became operational. However, the impacts due to the construction of the huge Ataturk Dam in 1990 on the Euphrates, which was added to the other large dams on the Euphrates in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, forced the Iraqi government to change drastically the operation scheme for the Tigris, too, since the two watersheds are managed in a combined way. As a result, hydrological records of the main rivers’ upstream marshlands area show a remarkable difference in flow regime before and after 1990.

Map 1 shows the most important hydraulic structures in the watershed in relation to the wetlands.

The Marshes in the 20th Century Impacts of dams
Map 1: Main dams and barrages in the Tigris-Euphrates watershed.

The post-1990 average flow through the Euphrates downstream of Hindiyah is approximately half of what it was in the past; in the Tigris, downstream of Kut, flows have decreased to almost a third of their pre-1990 discharge. Additionally, peak flows, which were used to feed the marshlands during extreme runoff events, were reduced to about 25%-30% of their pre-1990 flow.[2] Hydraulic structures have reduced not only the overall water supply, but also its seasonality.

  • Before 1990
  • After 1990

Figure 2. Impact of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates’ average flow

  • Before 1990
  • After 1990

Figure 3. Impact of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates’ average flow

Impact of agriculture

Agriculture has been practised in Iraq for over 6,000 years and has had an indelible impact on the physiography, soils and area of the marshlands. The earliest type of irrigation in southern Iraq is thought to have been in the estuary, where the tidal influence was utilized. During flood tide, the rising river water was channelled into the numerous ditches dug in the low levees bordering the river and the creeks branching off it. At ebb tide, the water flowed back again. Thus, easy irrigation and drainage was ensured. This type of irrigation is still used on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab River for date cultivation.

The interior delta was the next area adapted for cultivation using ‘wild irrigation’. This made use of natural areas of inundation in the deltaic distributaries and floodplains. As soon as dry land emerged following the flood, seedbeds were prepared and sowing kept pace with the falling water level. Gaps were made in river levees at their lowest points, thus increasing the presence of meandering river branches that built up their own small levees.[3]

Increased production needs led to the development of controlled irrigation, involving the installation of primitive dams, sluices, water wheels and extensive systems of dug canals. Eventually, almost the entire river valley was divided into numerous small artificial basins bounded by the banks of the canals.

A plan designed by the Ministry of Water Resources in the 1980s led to the implementation of a more modern type of irrigation and drainage. Agriculture and marshlands were viewed as antithetical and the marshlands were drained to make way for croplands and other development projects.

In subsequent years, this approach was found to be deeply flawed and, today, more holistic, sustainable approaches that recognize the give and take between agricultural lands and marshlands are gaining ground. For many reasons, including groundwater recharge, microclimate effects, soil salinity and quality improvements, and expansion of future agricultural areas, marshlands have proven to be vital and complementary partners in agricultural development.[4] As a result, the plan designed in the 1980s was updated and incorporated into the Strategy for Water and Land Resources (SWLRI), which was finalized by the Ministry of Water Resources in 2015.

Agricultural land and irrigation projects within the marshlands Impacts of agriculture
Map 2: Agricultural land and irrigation projects within the marshlands area. [5]

Impact of petroleum development

Southern Iraq is home to around 5% of the world’s total oil reserves. Since the first oil was discovered in 1902 in the north of Iraq, a total of over 70 possible fields have been found, of which only 15 have been developed. The southern fields are generally anticlinal trap structures producing from relatively shallow depths, although deeper production zones are likely present.

To date, the development of oil production facilities has necessitated the drainage of about 5%-10% of the total marshland area. Future development of oilfields within the area may necessitate additional drainage of the marshlands, and such developments should be integrated into the sustainable development strategy to allow for appropriate consideration of the land-use needs of the local inhabitants, ecosystem conservation and agriculture.

Oilfields within the marshlands area
Map 3: Oilfields within the marshlands area. [6]

The 1990s drainage programme

The marshlands suffered large-scale destruction during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988). The Hawizeh Marsh was partially desiccated, and the construction of a road across the Central Marsh parallel to the west bank of the Tigris effectively bisected the marshes from north to south.

This was followed in the early 1990s by a massive drainage programme through the construction of several diversion canals aimed at taking water directly to the existing channel network and finally to the sea. Officially, the programme was carried out to meet land development targets. In reality, following the First Gulf War, the marshes had become a centre of Iraqi opposition against Saddam Hussain. The drainage programme is thus believed to have been a means to flush out hiding rebels. After the desiccation of the marshlands, the dried reed beds and villages constructed of reeds were burned.

One of the main interventions that permanently changed the landscape and environment was the Glory River construction, with its large, straight course that cut across the Central Marsh from north to south.

[1] Elaborated from New Eden Group (2006), cited above, and Ministry of Water Resources (2014), Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.
[2] New Eden Group (2006). New Eden Master Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Marshlands Area.  Final report prepared for Iraq’s Ministries of Water Resources, Municipalities and Public Works, and Environment.
[3] Schilstra J. (1962). ‘Irrigation as a soil and relief-forming factor in the lower Mesopotamian plain’. Netherland Journal of Agriculture Science, 10 (3).
[4] New Eden Group (2006). New Eden Master Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Marshlands Area.  Final report prepared for Iraq’s Ministries of Water Resources, Municipalities and Public Works, and Environment.
[5] Adapted from New Eden Group (2008). Update of New Eden Master Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Marshlands Area. Final report prepared for Iraq’s Ministries of Water Resources, Municipalities and Public Works, and Environment; and Ministry of Water Resources (2015). Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.
[6] Adapted from New Eden Group (2008). Update of New Eden Master Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Marshlands Area. Final report prepared for Iraq’s Ministries of Water Resources, Municipalities and Public Works, and Environment.