Restoring the Marshes of Southern Iraq

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The giant Majnoon Oil field in Southern Iraq overlaps with the country’s most important wetland area, the Mesopotamian Marshlands. Decreasing water availability is a constraint here for both the marshes and the oil industry in this dry country. Despite years of warfare and large-scale drainage, there is suddenly new hope for the marshes.


Majnoon is Arabic for crazy, and in this case refers to the amount of oil in the field: an estimated 38 million barrels of oil covering nearly 800 kilometres, making it the third largest oil field in the world. The Majnoon field also sits astride the largest and most important wetland area in the Middle East, at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

As part of our collaborative framework agreement with Shell, Wetlands International corporate relations manager Ward Hagemeijer is coordinating a joint project that aims for a positive contribution to marshland restoration, people’s livelihoods and the institutional strengthening of Iraq.

“We’re trying to achieve something positive both for the flora and fauna and for the local population of the Iraq marshes. We only take on a project like this if we’re confident we can make gains in every area,” said Hagemeijer.

Wetlands of international importance

These marshes and the people living in them have suffered tremendous losses in the past 25 years. Large scale drainage, mostly by the Saddam Hussein regime, reduced the marshes to 10% of their original area and deprived people of their livelihoods that depended on the abundant nature.


The impact of war is still felt here as extensive areas are littered with one of the highest densities of mines and unexploded ordinance in the world. The marshes continue to face serious threats. Large dams and inefficient agricultural schemes in Iraq and neighbouring countries are increasingly reducing the quantity and quality of water that reaches the marshes even further.


Through all of this, a small part of the marsh on the border with Iran has remained as a green oasis and is the only Ramsar wetland of international importance in Iraq: the Hawizeh Marsh. This ‘Garden of Eden’ has sustained livelihoods for millennia and many important international bird migration routes cross them. They overlap with Shell Iraq Petroleum Development’s project and are at the core of past and future marsh restoration efforts.

Hopeful signs for nature

A visit to this still-hazardous and sun-baked landscape in 2013 by Hagemeijer and his colleague Frank Hoffmann demonstrated the potential for marsh restoration. Heavy winter precipitation turned what used to be considered as ‘desert’ into a lush sea of green marsh vegetation and flowing waters full of birds and fish that were a boon to local communities.


In addition to an increasing number of bird species seen by Hagemeijer, there were green reed beds with groups of water buffalo and Marsh Arab fishermen casting fishing nets on the waterways. This encapsulates the multiple objectives of Wetlands International. “For us, it isn’t just a matter of protecting animals and plants,” says Hagemeijer. “Of course that’s important too. Birds are the most visible sign that the quality of the environment is improving and marshland like the Hawizeh has been a recovery area and feeding ground for migrating birds throughout history.”

We have worked with Shell from the outset of the project to help ensure that their activities conform to the principle of ‘wise use’. Working together we are maximising the opportunities for their developments to contribute to the restoration of the marshes. “These wet areas also play a part in preventing dust storms, which are extremely detrimental to the economy, living conditions and health. And wet areas also moderate the temperature in this very hot part of the world, which benefits everyone,” added Hagemeijer.

We have helped guide Shell’s Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), the first of its kind in Iraq. The BAP takes account of the natural values of the region and tries to limit the impacts of oil exploration by limiting the drilling footprint and the effect on the natural environment. The result is that operations here are designed to take up less space, with fewer pipelines running through vulnerable areas and less traffic between production installations.

The next step for nature and people


The work is not finished now that nature is bouncing back. Our continued involvement aims to develop the region in a way that benefits both the natural environment and people. The next step is to overcome complex political obstacles to get more water into the area on a consistent basis. To achieve this, we are working with Shell, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Iraqi government to establish the importance of the natural value of the area more firmly in policy and actions.

This story uses content that originally appeared in Shell’s Dutch-language magazine, Venster in November-December 2013. The formal partnership between Wetlands International and Shell ended in June 2017.