The Iraq Marshes: Restoration Activities
CRS Report for Congress
The Iraq Marshes: Restoration Activities
June 15, 2004
Analyst in Energy and Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Iraq Marshes: Restoration Activities
During the 1990s, Saddam Hussein drained approximately 90% of the Iraqi
marshes. This action displaced 200,000 to 250,000 Ma’dan (Marsh Arabs) and
severely harmed an important ecosystem. Efforts to rehabilitate the marshes have
returned water to about 40% of the former marshland. However, re-flooding
additional areas and providing for long-term marsh restoration requires actions to
maintain the quantity and quality of water flowing through the marshes. To facilitate
such efforts, nongovernmental organizations and U.S. contractors are working with
Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), Ministry of Environment, the newly
established Center for Restoration of the Iraq Marshlands (CRIM), and local Iraqis
to implement short-term action plans calling for ecological and socioeconomic
studies. These draft studies and the associated monitoring and modeling activities
will set the foundation for a long-term restoration management plan. Implementing
the overall plan will include training and equipping Iraqi officials, managing water
supplies, and negotiating international water agreements. Some of these efforts have
Developing and implementing a restoration plan will depend on continued
funding. Current estimates for restoration costs include $10 million for developing
a Sustainable Restoration Plan (the Iraq Foundation) and $25 million in projects for
three years under the Iraq Marsh Restoration Program Action Plan. The United
States has provided support for ecosystem restoration and for assisting the Ma’dan
through a $4 million U.S. Agency for International Development contract and
through the U.S. State Department’s and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ support
activities. In its FY2004 request for supplemental appropriations, the Coalition
Provisional Authority asked for $100 million for marsh restoration; Congress did not
appropriate these funds and the President’s FY2005 budget request does not include
targeted marsh restoration funding. However, as stated in H.Rept. 108-312 (p. 19),
such efforts may receive funding from international donors. This report discusses the
status of restoration activities and funding. It will be updated as developments
Introduction to the Iraq Marshes..................................1
Draining the Wetlands..........................................1
Re-flooding and Monitoring.................................4
Training and Capacity-Building...............................5
Project Funding Conclusions.................................8
List of Figures
Figure 1. Change in Iraqi Marsh Area..................................2
List of Tables
Table 1. Contribution of Each Country to the Water Potential of the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers......................................6
The Iraq Marshes: Restoration Activities
Introduction to the Iraq Marshes
The Mesopotamian Marshlands, which include the Central Marsh, the Al
Hammar Marsh, and the Al Hawizeh Marsh, historically extended over 15,000 to
flats and wetlands.1 (See Figure 1.) Fed by floodwaters2 and other inflows from the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, these marshes became the largest wetland ecosystem in
the Middle East and Western Eurasia. This wetland supported fish, rice, and water
buffalo production that supported more than 350,000 people, known as Ma’dan or3
Marsh Arabs, for more than 5,000 years. The marshes also provided important
habitat for a number of endemic species, birds traveling the intercontinental flyway,4
and aquatic species supplying coastal fisheries.
Draining the Wetlands
While early inhabitants of Mesopotamia built structures to capture water from
the rivers and to protect themselves from floods, plans to develop the marshes were
not outlined until the middle of the 20th century.5 Even with plans on the drawing
board, large-scale water projects were constructed sporadically and the marshes
remained relatively intact into the 1980s. During the 1980s and 1990s, large water
projects in Iraq and upstream nations began affecting the Mesopotamian Marshes.
Specifically, dams built on the Tigris and Euphrates in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran6
can store more than five times the rivers’ average annual flows. This storage
capacity allows upstream users to effectively eliminate the spring floodwaters that
historically maintained the marshes.
1Hassan Partow, The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem (Narobi, Kenya:
U.N. Environmental Program, 2001). Available at [http://www.grid.unep.ch/activities/
sustainable/tigris/marshlands/mesopotamia.pdf], visited Feb. 10, 2004. Hereafter referred
to as UNEP, 2001.
2 Inflows to the marshes varied widely both within and between years; however, most water
enters the marshes during spring floods (UNEP, 2001).
3UNEP, 2001, p. 15. See also CRS Report 94-320 F, Iraq: Marsh Arabs and U.S. Policy,
by Kenneth Katzman.
4For example, 40% of Kuwait’s shrimp catch originated in the marshes (UNEP, 2001, p. 35).
5UNEP, 2001, p. 22.
6UNEP, 2001, p. 9.
Figure 1. Change in Iraqi Marsh Area
Source: Hassan Partow, The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem (Nairobi,
Kenya: U.N. Environmental Program, 2001); and Eden Again, Building a Scientific Basis
for Restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands (Washington, DC: The Iraq Foundation,
Apr. 21, 2003).
While upstream dams may have diminished the marshes over time, they were
not the immediate cause of marsh dessication. Beginning in the 1990s, the Iraqi
government undertook a number of massive water projects that severely reduced the
marshes’ water supply. Through these efforts, Saddam Hussein drained
approximately 90% of the marshes by 2000.7 While the Iraqi government claimed
that it built these dikes, dams, and canals to increase land reclamation and irrigation,
others found no evidence that the water projects were used for development
purposes.8 Rather, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes to give his army access to
the region and to remove a sanctuary where an estimated 9,000 Iran-backed Shiite
guerillas and thousands of deserters lived.9
By 2000, the marshes had been severely diminished. Specifically the Central
and Al Hammar Marshes were reduced to small secluded parcels. The largest
remaining marsh, the Al Hawizeh Marsh, occupied a third (1,025 km2, or 253,000
7 The bulk of the dessication occurred between 1991-1995 (UNEP, 2001. p. 32).
8 CRS Report 94-320 F, Iraq: Marsh Arabs and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman.
acres) of its previous area in western Iraq and eastern Iran.10 Along with desiccating
the marshlands, Saddam Hussein killed or relocated large numbers of Marsh Arabs.
An estimated 40,000 of these Marsh Arabs sought refuge in Iran, while 200,000 to
Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded census indicated that
roughly 85,000 Ma’dan still dwell in or alongside the remaining marshes.12
Between 2000 and 2002 an additional 325 square kilometers dried, leaving
about 7% of the marshes intact.13 According to UNEP, “loss of the Mesopotamian
Marshes stands out as one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters.”14 The
marshes were a major wintering ground for birds traveling the intercontinental
flyway. Incomplete studies have recorded 134 bird species,15 including 11 species
of critical, endangered, or vulnerable birds.16 The marshes also contained three
species of endangered and vulnerable reptiles and mammals. These species are now
in more critical condition, and may be extinct.
A number of entities are working to restore the Iraq marshes. Even before
President Bush announced the end of hostilities on May 1, 2003, reports and
proposals for marsh restoration were developed by the U.N. Environment Program17
and the Iraq Foundation,18 with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. State Department.
10UNEP, 2001, p. 32. The Central Marsh lost 97% of its area and the Al Hammar Marsh
was reduced by 94%. About 21% of the remaining Al Hawizeh Marsh is in Iran.
11UNEP, 2001, p. 33-34. See also Human Rights Watch, The Iraqi Government Assault on
the Marsh Arabs, A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper (Washington, DC, Jan. 2003).
12Gordon West Acting Assistant Administrator, Asia and Near East Bureau and Dr. John
Wilson, Senior Environment and Agriculture Specialist, Asia and Near East Bureau, U.S.
Dept. of State, Written Testimony, hearing on the United States and the Iraqi Marshlands:
An Environmental Response for the House International Relations Committee,
Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia (Feb. 24, 2004), p. 3.
13 U.N. Environment Program Desk Study on Environment in Iraq (Switzerland, 2003), p.
15 According to UNEP, the Persian Gulf (Kuwait, Iraq, Eastern Saudi Arabia and Western
Iran) has over 400 bird species (UNEP, Desk Study on Environment in Iraq, p. 48).
16The Iraq Foundation, Building a Scientific Basis for the Restoration of the Mesopotamian
Marshlands: Findings of the International Technical Advisory Panel Restoration Planning
Workshop, February 2003, convened by Eden Again Project, the Iraq Foundation
(Washington, DC, Apr. 21, 2003), p. 64. Hereafter referred to as Iraq Foundation, 2003.
17 UNEP, 2001.
18 The Iraq Foundation is nonprofit organization intended to help bring a democratic
government to Iraq (Iraq Foundation, 2003).
Since the spring of 2003, UNEP, the Iraq Foundation, USAID,19 the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. State Department have worked to support Iraq’s
ministries and its new Center for Restoration of the Iraq Marshlands (CRIM) in
implementing proposals for marsh restoration. Marsh rehabilitation efforts include
re-flooding and monitoring; research; planning; training and capacity-building; and
establishing international agreements. Further, some entities are working on projects
to increase the prosperity of the marsh dwellers.
Re-flooding and Monitoring. Re-flooding has been undertaken through
breaching dams and embankments, opening sluice gates, and stopping pumping. In
some cases, these activities have been undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, at the direction of the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR); in others,
areas were re-wetted without consultation with the MWR. Above-average rainfall
and releases of water from Iran have also contributed to re-flooding marshlands. As20
of June 2004, up to 40% of the former marshlands had been re-wetted.
Restoration is not as simple as re-wetting former marshlands. According to the
Iraq Foundation, vegetation has not returned to all of the re-wetted areas. In order to
understand how best to pursue further restoration, entities are monitoring some of
the re-flooded areas. Monitoring demonstration projects is the first step in the Iraq
Foundation’s three-step process toward developing a sustainable restoration plan.
They are pursuing this step with grants from Italy to monitor the re-vegetation and
re-habitation process at one of the recently flooded sites (the Abu Zarag Marsh) and
to examine ways to increase the amount of water available for marsh rehabilitation.
The Iraq Foundation has also received $140,000 from USAID/DAI to monitor
additional sites. Initial reports from these monitoring efforts include the return of 45
bird species, two of which are on the endangered list. UNEP also plans to monitor
and assess the environmental character of changes taking place. Since UNEP
officials are not present in Iraq based on U.N. security policies, they will monitor by
collecting and analyzing satellite data.
Research. Planning the rehabilitation of a major wetland requires specific
information on the former wetland site (e.g., soil salinity, vegetation, and
development) and on the quantity and quality of available water. Prior to the fall of
the Hussein government, marsh data was limited primarily to satellite imagery.
Therefore, a major component of rehabilitation efforts is gathering site-specific
information. In June 2003 and February 2004, teams of independent experts from
DAI, Duke University, the Iraq Foundation, the International Resources Group, the
Iraq Ministry of Water, the AMAR Foundation, and the University of Basra collected
data on soil, water quality, seed banks, and other characteristics of the former
marshlands. The June trip revealed extensive re-flooding and lower than expected
salinity in most areas. The Iraq Foundation has conducted monthly field surveys
since August 2003.
In addition to examining the status of the former marshlands, efforts are
underway to understand the region’s hydrologic system (the system that supplies
19 USAID’s work is through subcontractor Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI).
20Personal communication with Suzie Alwash, The Iraq Foundation, Apr. 24, 2004.
water to and removes water from the marshes). USAID/DAI hired the Corps to
conduct marsh studies and to develop a water management model for the Tigris and
Euphrates Rivers. This model is currently in development.21 The Iraq Foundation
and the Danish Hydraulics Institute (DHI) are also working on marsh models. DHI
is working on pilot areas in Al Hawizeh and Al Hammar Marshes and a river model
from Baghdad south to the Arabian Gulf. The Iraq Foundation is working on models
of the Central Marshes. These models will help clarify the quantity and quality of
water available for the marshes.
Planning. The primary purpose of the various research and modeling efforts
is to provide for a comprehensive marsh restoration and management plan. Over the
past year, teams of experts have met to discuss restoration planning. In February22
2004, “a team of 71 experts from 6 countries, joined together to work on an action
plan focusing on integrated marsh management,” for USAID’s Iraqi Marsh23
USAID/DAI’s proposal for working to develop an Integrated Marsh
Management Plan supports the broader work of the new Center for Restoration of the24
Iraq Marshlands (CRIM). According to the Iraq Foundation, CRIM’s goal for the
next year is to prepare a Sustainable Restoration Plan. To prepare the plan, the Iraq
Foundation’s International Technical Advisory Panel has recommended three actions:
“1) implement demonstration projects to observe how the ecosystem responds to re-
hydration; 2) conduct a series of comprehensive environmental surveys, to be
accomplished by Iraqi scientists with the assistance of international experts, to
provide a scientific basis for making wise land-use decisions; and 3) obtain input
from stakeholders to allow for decision-making through a participatory process25
within Iraq.” The Iraq Foundation has begun some of these activities with $2
million from Italy, but estimates that CRIM will need $10 million to complete this26
process and prepare the plan. USAID/DAI’s Iraq Marsh Restoration Program
includes some funding for these activities. For example, it includes $350,000
towards strategic and comprehensive planning activities and $520,000 for integrated
Training and Capacity-Building. Carrying out restoration actions and
implementing a long-term management plan require trained Iraqi officials and well
functioning ministries. Therefore, entities are working to provide Iraqi ministries
21The U.S. Geological Survey is helping the Corps with this model.
22 The countries include Iraq, the United States, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Australia, and
the Czech Republic.
23 U.S. Agency for International Development, Strategies for Assisting the Marsh Dwellers
and Restoring the Marshlands in Southern Iraq. Interim Status Report (Sept. 2003).
24 CRIM was established in Jan. 2004.
25 Testimony of Azzam Alwash, Director of the Eden Again Project, Iraq Foundation,
Member of the Steering Committee, Center for Restoration of the Iraqi Marshlands for the
House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central
Asia (Feb. 24, 2004).
(particularly the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Water, the Ministry of
Agriculture, and CRIM) with the tools and training necessary to manage their waters
and maintain the marshes. USAID/DAI, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
has trained two senior Iraqi engineers at the Corps modeling center in California.
They are also helping to set up a soil and water lab for the MWR and to train Iraqi
staff. Other entities are also involved in training efforts. The Canadians, who have
pledged $2 million (US), are supporting the training of Iraqi academics and UNEP
is supporting capacity-building activities.
International Agreements. Even with plans in place and trained Iraqi staff,
sustaining the marshes will be difficult, if not impossible, without international
cooperation. Much of the potential marsh-water originates in, and flows through the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in, Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Iran (see
Table 1); dams in these countries can hold back five times the rivers’ annual flows.
Since the quantity and quality of water available for the marshes depends on foreign
water management, UNEP and other organizations have been involved in promoting
regional dialogue on the restoration of marshlands. Specifically, UNEP is promoting
bilateral dialogue between Iran and Iraq to identify potential areas of technical
cooperation for the shared marshlands of Al-Hawizeh/Al-Azim.27 In May 2004,
UNEP hosted a technical meeting between Iran and Iraq on the shared marshlands,
and the countries agreed to attend a follow-up meeting in October 2004, which will
aim to identify specific areas of cooperation.28 Similar meetings have not occurred
with Turkey or Syria; however, Turkey is aware of the Iraq-Iran meetings and is
providing water data to the Corps for its modeling effort.
Table 1. Contribution of Each Country to the Water Potential of
the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
Euphrates 88.7% 11.3% 0.0%
Tigris 51.9% 0.0% 48.1%
Source: U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, World Water Assessment Program,
Water Sources in Iraq. Available at [http://www.unesco.org/water/wwap/news/iraq.shtml, visited]June
In addition to bilateral discussions, entities have also been working to develop
broader regional collaboration for restoring the marshes. For example, the UNEP is
encouraging collaboration with the Regional Organization for the Protection of the
Marine Environment to highlight the connection between the marshes and the marine
environment and to build support for restoration. Furthermore, USAID, through
DAI, is examining the possibility of getting the Mesopotamian Marshes listed as a
World Heritage Site.
27Personal communication with Hassan Partow, UNEP, June 3, 2004.
28This is the first time the two countries have met to discuss shared water resources in 29
Socioeconomic Activities. Along with ecosystem restoration activities,
USAID/DAI and other entities have been working to improve the socioeconomic
condition of the marsh dwellers. USAID, with its development mission, is working
through its contractors and subcontractors on a number of agricultural programs. For
example, DAI has facilitated the planting of 1,000 date palms at one site and is
planning planting at five more sites. DAI is also involved in aquaculture, and is
helping to improve the health of water buffalo by planting alfalfa and setting up
veterinary facilities. DAI has also subcontracted with another nonprofit, the AMAR
Foundation, to conduct socioeconomic surveys of the Ma’dan and to start health
In addition to its general agency oversight responsibilities, the major issue
facing Congress concerning the restoration of the Iraqi marshes is whether to
appropriate funds for their rehabilitation. In a supplemental appropriations request
for FY2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority requested $100 million for the Iraq29
marshes. Congress did not appropriate these funds. However, as stated in H.Rept.
108-312, other nations may contribute to the marsh restoration effort. This report
describes the status of project funding to indicate how any additional U.S.
appropriations might be utilized.
Projects. In February 2004, DAI convened a team of 71 experts from six
countries to design an action plan “focusing on integrated marshlands management
through ecosystem management and restoration and social and economic30
assistance.” During February 2004, teams examined opportunities for marsh
management, agriculture, livestock, fishing, public health, and constructed wetlands.
This work identified a set of tasks DAI proposes to complete by December 31, 2004,
with its $4 million budget from USAID. The team also proposed $7.1 million in
additional tasks for year one; these tasks are currently unfunded. Unfunded priorities
include $3.5 million for a master plan for water resources in Iraq, $450,000 for marsh
monitoring, and $250,000 for a soil and water lab. The group also identified $13.9
million in additional projects, which are currently unfunded, for years two and three.
Funding. The U.S. State Department, the Iraq Foundation, UNEP, and other
entities are working to solicit funding for marsh restoration projects. As of June
2004, the United States, Italy, Japan, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Great Britain
had pledged support for the marshes and Marsh Arabs. Denmark funded a river
navigation strategy. Italy provided $2 million for water modeling, environmental
assessments, and water budgeting through the Iraq Foundation. Great Britain funded
technical experts through UENP and Australia provided technical experts. As noted
earlier, the United States, through USAID, contributed $4 million in funding, split
between ecosystem restoration and development activities. Japan pledged $11
million, through UNEP, most of which will fund water and sewage treatment projects
within the marshlands area. The United Kingdom has also pledged funding to UNEP
29 Coalition Provisional Authority Request to Rehabilitate and Restore Iraq (Sept. 2003).
30 U.S. Agency for International Development, Iraq Marshlands Restoration Program
Action Plan (April 2004) Forward Task Order, Water Indefinite Quantity Contract.
for environmental initiatives in Iraq. Italy contributed more than $2 million in
funding through the Iraq Foundation. Canada has pledged $2 million for the marshes
and will be participating in a conference to determine where best to direct that
Project Funding Conclusions. In total, nations have pledged around $18
million; some, but not all, of this funding will directly target marsh restoration. It
will also fund projects with a less direct relationship to restoration (e.g., sanitation,
water supply, and economic development for the Ma’dan) and other environmental
projects in Iraq. This funding is insufficient to undertake the projects currently
identified by USAID/DAI and the Iraq Foundation. Overall, a USAID report
identifies projects that it estimates would cost approximately $25 million over three
years. The Iraq Foundation stated that CRIM will need approximately $10 million
to prepare a Sustainable Restoration Plan, and additional projects are likely to be
identified over the next year as CRIM develops a management plan for the marshes.