Water Scarcity Endangers Iraq’s Migratory Birds
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq, May 6, 2020 (ENS) – To mark World Migratory Bird Day this Sunday, the nongovernmental organization Nature Iraq is joining its BirdLife International partners around the world to celebrate bird migration, and to highlight the difficulties facing some the world’s most threatened species.
The Mesopotamian marshes in the region of southern Iraq between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are especially important for wintering waterbirds, and Nature Iraq has worked to restore these marshes after they were 90 percent drained under Saddam Hussein’s regime. After several years of richer water flows, the marshes are again drying up because of drought and upstream dams.
“Iraq is, for good reasons, focused on security and development, but unless the country acts soon, many important species will simply not be here in 10 years’ time,” said Dr. Azzam Alwash, CEO of Nature Iraq.
A Critically Endangered sociable lapwing (Photo courtesy AEWA)
World Migratory Bird Day is a global initiative to raise awareness of the need to conserve all migratory birds. This year’s theme, “Save Migratory Birds in Crisis – Every Species Counts,” is aimed at raising awareness of migratory birds on the very edge of extinction – the 31 species of birds classed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN. Some of them depend on habitat in Iraq.
“In the Middle East, for example,” warned Alwash, “the Critically Endangered sociable lapwing, Vanellus gregarius, could become extinct within a human generation due to persecution and habitat loss.”
Once these birds bred in large numbers on open grassland in Russia and Kazakhstan, laying three to five eggs in nests of the ground. They migrated south through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, to key wintering sites in Israel, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and northwestern India.
But in 2004, BirdLife International categorized the sociable lapwing as Critically Endangered, due to a rapid population decline for reasons not well understood.
The IUCN estimates a global population size of just 5,600 breeding pairs of sociable lapwings, or about 11,200 mature individuals, and projects the decline will continue.
The Mesopotamian marshes grew hot and dry under the management of Saddam Hussein. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, the regime built a series of drainage and water diversion structures that desiccated 90 percent of the world’s then third-largest wetlands to punish a political rebellion by the Marsh Arabs.
“During this time average temperatures in the area rose five degrees Celsius,” said Dr. Alwash.
An Endangered Basra reef warbler (Photo by Rashed11112)
After the collapse of the regime in 2003, rehabilitation of the marshes began. As the hydro engineering structures were torn down, water flowed back into the internationally important wetlands, increasing the chances of survival for migratory birds in the region such as the Basra reed warbler, Acrocephalus griseldis, listed as Endangered by the IUCN.
The Basra reed warbler breeds in the Mesopotamian marshes and winters in Sudan, Ethiopia, south Somalia, southeast Kenya, east Tanzania, southern Malawi and Mozambique.
But now the marshes are shrinking again as a result of drought and intensive dam construction and irrigation schemes upstream.
“Flooding has been disrupted by the dams built in Turkey, Syria and Iraq itself,” observed Dr. Alwash last year. “The natural flow system is not going to return until and unless the dams outside Iraq are actively managed as part of a basin-wide coordinated management of the Tigris and Euphrates. In response, Nature Iraq is currently producing a drought management plan.”
Dr. Michelle Stevens, assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department of the California State University at Sacramento, wrote on her blog last year, “I have been a member of the Society of Wetland Scientists since the mid-1980s, and have worked in the wetlands field professionally since that time. The most compelling, heart breaking and inspiring project I have ever worked on is the rehydration and now desiccation of the marshes of Iraq, and the adverse impacts on both the people of the marshes and the ecosystem.”
Dr. Stevens told ENS today that water scarcity in the Mesopotamian marshes is “a world class disaster in the making.”
“In southern Iraq there has been a precipitous emergency over lack of water,” she said, partly because the Turkish government will continue construction of the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River after receiving loans from three Turkish banks in January.
The Ilisu dam is part of Turkey’s Southeast Anatolia Project, an economic development program that plans for 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric projects to boost irrigated agriculture in Turkey’s poor and arid southeastern corner, affecting the water available to downstream Iraq.
Iran has built a dam on the Karkeh River, which runs into Iraq. This water was diverted from the marshes just as they were declared to be a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.
Akeed Abdullah stands next to his boat in a dried marsh in Hor al-Hammar in southern Iraq. (Photo by Gorillas Guides)
“We believed that 20 percent of the marshes were left,” said Stevens today, “but every time I talk to someone it’s lower and lower. In the future we expect the situation to get much worse if there’s no international agreement to allocate water to the marshes.”
Iraq has established a national park in the central marshes, but Stevens says this area “may be some of the most vulnerable to upstream water drainage.” The ducks that nest there in the summer would be particularly vulnerable, she said.
BirdLife partner organizations, such as Nature Iraq, network to help migratory birds to survive even under such adverse circumstances. “We operate in over 100 countries and territories worldwide, and work together to raise awareness about migratory birds and implement conservation projects,” said Dr. Alwash.
“International collaboration is the only way to conserve migratory birds as they pass along their flyways,” said Dr. Marco Lambertini, BirdLife’s chief executive. “That’s why the BirdLife Partnership, with over 100 national organizations across the continents, can make a great difference in providing safer routes for migratory birds, as well as promoting the crucial intergovernmental co-ordinated efforts needed to address the growing threats along the flyways.”
Bert Lenten, executive secretary of the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement and initiator of the World Migratory Bird Day campaign, said, “We know that migratory birds are part of the biological diversity of our world and are often used as indicators for the biological health of our ecosystems.”
“We rely on this variety of life to provide us with the food, fuel, medicine and other essentials we simply cannot live without and it is in our power to protect these resources and to safeguard biodiversity,” said Lenten.
To protect Iraq’s biodiversity, Nature Iraq is conducting field work to identify important bird areas and areas that are biologically diverse throughout the country.
And this weekend, the scientists, birding photographers, environmentalists, administrators, interpreters and translators, logistics experts, IT and communication specialists of Nature Iraq will join thousands of other Iraqis at peaceful events such as bird festivals, education programs and trips to watch birds migrate.