Marsh Arabs and Draining of Iraqi Wetlands, Iraq

The draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes occurred in Iraq and to a smaller degree in Iran between the 1950s and 1990s to clear large areas of the marshes in the Tigris-Euphrates river system.


The Mesopotamian Marshes were once the largest wetlands in the Middle East and Western Eurasia. The Marshes formed from annual flood pulses of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In the 1970s, the Marshes covered between 15,000 and 20,000 km2 of water surface and vegetation. The indigenous people of the Marshes, the Marsh Arabs, have practiced sustainable traditional resource management for thousands of years, developing an iconic way of life that ties them intimately to their wetland landscape. [1]

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Basic Data
NameMarsh Arabs and Draining of Iraqi Wetlands, Iraq
SiteTigris-Euphrates Marshlands
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Water Management
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Specific CommoditiesWater
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsVarious Dams and Draining infrastructure was installed between 1950 and 1990.

In total, there are now 32 major dams on the Euphrates and Tigris, including the latter’s associated Karkheh and Karun river systems. Eight more are currently under construction and at least 13 more are planned. The total storage value of all the dams that have been constructed on the Euphrates in Turkey is 90.9 Billions of Cubic Meters (BCM); and it will go up to 94.78 BCM when all planned works are completed. This is three times the average 30.7 BCM annual discharge of the Euphrates at the Syrian border. In Iraq and Syria, the combined storage capacity of all dams is 22.88 BCM. If the two off-river reservoirs of Habbaniyah and Razzaza in Iraq are taken into account, then the water volume that can be retained by the two downstream states would augment to 52.18 BCM. All in all, the gross storage capacity of all existing hydraulic works on the Euphrates is 143.19 BCM or five times the river average annual flow.

Iraq currently exercises the greatest control on Tigris waters. The massive Tharthar diversion reservoir accounts for 69% of the country’s 105.95 BCM gross storage capacity, which is double the average annual flow of the Tigris River of 52.6 BCM.
Project Area (in hectares)2,000,000
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population125,000-150,000
Start Date1950
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersNature Iraq:

Doga Dernegi:

ECA Watch Austria
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LATENT (no visible organising at the moment)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationCreation of alternative reports/knowledge
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Malnutrition, Infectious diseases
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Development of AlternativesThe Marshes were re-flooded after 2003 but locals are now demanding better water management to be able to cope with the water shortage (in quantity and quality) they are facing
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.Despite the restoration of the marshes, marsh Arabs are still facing problems due to the lack of water and its poor quality. This is affecting their traditional way of life and their livelihoods.
Sources and Materials

[6] - Managing Change in the Marshlands: Iraq’s Critical Challenge - Report of the United Nations Integrated Water Task Force for Iraq, 2011
[click to view]

[1] - Effects of Mesopotamian Marsh (Iraq) desiccation on the cultural knowledge and livelihood of Marsh Arab women - March 2016
[click to view]

[2] - The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem - 2001
[click to view]


[4] - Nature Iraq Website - National Atlas of marshes and wetlands in Iraq
[click to view]

[3] - Iraq's Famed Marshes Are Disappearing—Again - National Geographic - PUBLISHED JULY 9, 2015
[click to view]

[5] - Ramsar Convention, Iraq Page
[click to view]

Other Documents

Marsh Arabs protest Ilisu Project in Hasankeyf
[click to view]

Restoring Iraq’s ‘Garden of Eden’- The Mesopotamian Marshlands Image via Nature Iraq on
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorChristophe Maroun - [email protected]
Last update30/01/2018
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