Environmental Activists of Hawizeh Marshes Decry Poor Management of Iraq’s Wetlands
Straddling the Iran-Iraq border lie the Hawizeh Marshes, a complex of wetlands in Iraq’s Maysan Governorate, fed by the Tigris River in Iraq and the Karkeh River in Iran. They are part of the Mesopotamian Marshes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Between the summers of 2020 and 2022, all of the Marshes of Iraq suffered a loss of 46% of their surface water loss. Most of the remaining Marshes have also suffered from a sharp drop in water levels. Their drying up has resulted in less water available for water buffalos or fishing, on which local populations depend for their livelihood and income. Hawizeh Marshes is also home to many different kinds of species, including migratory birds. While much of the water scarcity can be attributed to the detrimental impacts of climate change, the wetlands are facing further water stress due to what many locals in Hawizeh Marshes regard as “unfair water management” by authorities. Local activists have questioned water allocations for the Marshes and decry the lack of communication from the authorities.
Plenty of water was stored in Iraq’s reservoirs in 2019, a year with an abundance of rainfall across the country. In the ensuing years, the Ministry of Water Resources relied heavily on this storage to supply water and meet the country’s needs in times of drought. According to data released by the High National Committee for Water Management the flow of water from Maysan (including Hawizeh Marshes) to Basra was raised from 65 m3 to 95 m3 per second in the past year, at a time when the Marshes were experiencing a serious decrease in water levels. The reason for the increase flows from the Marshes to Basra, resulting in water scarcity in the Marshes, was not communicated by the Ministry. Water quotas allocated for the agricultural sector were cut by half in 2022, thus the increase was not meant for agricultural purposes. Possibly the purpose of the increase was to supply Basra with drinking water. In any case, the decision to cut agricultural water quotas was taken in June. Locals in Maysan claim that if this decision had been taken earlier (January), the Marshes would not have suffered from water scarcity as much as they did. Besides, local authorities restricted access to Hawizeh Marshes, causing further suspicion among locals. Some claim water outflow from Maysan was increased in order to instigate political chaos and protests in the governorate, since there was a power vacuum in Iraq as a new government was being formed following federal elections (The Saddrist movement, strong in Maysan Governorate, was competing with the Coordination Framework to form a central government in Baghdad).
Further controversy surrounding the water crisis in Hawizeh Marshes was caused by infrastructure works within the wetlands. Any constructions within the area must be pre-approved by UNESCO World Heritage Centre as per Decision 44 COM 7B.73, since it is
a protected with World Heritage status. In October 2022, supported by photos, activists reported on social media the construction of oil infrastructure within the eastern side of Hawizeh Marshes. There has been much concern in recent years that the Ministry of Oil would drill for oil within the wetland area since oil exploitation has been ongoing in the vicinity of the site for many years, despite it being a protected natural site. It was revealed however that the infrastructure built by the Iraqi authorities consisted of an embankment with the purpose to fortify the border with Iran (note that one-third of the Hawizeh Marshes, Hoor al-Azim, is located within Iran). Prior to construction of this embankment, the last Iraqi security checkpoint was located approximately 34 kilometers from the border. The newly-built embankment was constructed for security purposes about 100 meters from the Iranian soil-embankment, which was constructed a decade ago straddling 90 km along the border and effectively cutting the Marshes in Iraqi from the Iranian side. Complementing the Iraqi embankment on the border, two corridors were constructed to manage the water flows between the Iraqi and Iranian side. Since the Iraqi side is located at a lower level, it is mostly on the receiving end. This implies that if there is a flood in Hoor al-Azim, Hawizeh Marshes could receive water inflow from Iran. Since the Iraqi embankment was meant to securitize the border, it was jointly built by the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Defense. It remains unclear whether this construction was approved by UNESCO. The outcry on social media when the infrastructure works within the Marshes were first exposed was emblematic of the distrust between the government and local communities of the Hawizeh Marshes. In a year of serious drought, the lack of transparency and communication from the authorities regarding the Marshes’ water allocations has created the perception among local communities that the wetlands have not received their fair shares of water. They believe that authorities have blatantly disregarded the ecological value of the Hawizeh Marshes and have not taken adequate measures to protect the wetlands.
Seasonal water inflow
Activists from the Hawizeh Marshes area have proposed a number of options to better protect the water resources of these wetlands. One of them is to save the seasonal water from two rivers (Al Teeb and Dwerej/Qaib), which depend heavily on the quantity of rainfall and to not allow those rivers to flow into the Tigris, instead to have them flow into Hawizeh Marshes – even if the water quality differs. Iran implemented similar measures on its side of the Marshes. Even if the waters on the Iranian side are shallow and the levels are low, it has managed to revive Hoor al-Azim wetlands. In order to sustain the Hawizeh Marshes and safeguard its UNESCO Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) status, they must receive their fair and adequate shares of water. Local activists call upon Iraqi authorities to create an atmosphere of trust and transparency by responding to water scarcity in a timely manner, and to communicate publicly any changes in water allocations for the Marshes.