The Tigris-Euphrates river system is part of the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial salt marsh ecoregion of the Middle East, and is characterized by two large rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. The rivers have several small tributaries which feed into shallow freshwater lakes, swamps, and marshes, all surrounded by desert. The hydrology of these vast marshes is extremely important to the ecology of the entire upper Persian Gulf. Historically, the area is known as Mesopotamia. As part of the larger Fertile Crescent, it saw the earliest emergence of literate urban civilization in the Uruk period, for which reason it is often dubbed the "Cradle of Civilization".
In the 1980s this ecoregion was put in grave danger as the Iran–Iraq War raged within its boundaries. It also faced one of the massive economic-environmental crimes in modern history: the destruction of Iraq's wetlands.
The general climate is subtropical, hot and arid. At the northern end of the Persian Gulf is the vast floodplain of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Karun Rivers, featuring huge permanent lakes, marshes, and forest. The aquatic vegetation includes reeds, rushes, and papyrus, which support numerous species. Areas around the Tigris and the Euphrates are very fertile. Marshy land is home to water birds, some stopping here while migrating, and some spending the winter in these marshes living off the lizards, snakes, frogs, and fish. Other animals found in these marshes are water buffalo, two endemic rodent species, antelopes and gazelles and small animals such as the jerboa and several other mammals.
Arabic is the main local language. It is estimated that fewer than 10,000 of the indigenous Marsh Arabs remain.
Iraq suffers from desertification and soil salination due in large part to thousands of years of agricultural activity. Water is scarce and plant-life sparse. Saddam Hussein's government water control projects have drained most of the inhabited marsh areas east of An Nasiriyah by drying up or diverting streams and rivers. Population of Shi'a Muslims have been displaced. The destruction of the natural habitat poses serious threats to the area's wildlife populations. There are also inadequate supplies of potable water.
Marshlands were a fine and extensive natural wetlands ecosystem. They developed over thousands of years in the Tigris-Euphrates basin and once covered 15–20,000 square kilometers. According to the United Nations Environmental Program and the AMAR Charitable Foundation, between 84% and 90% of the marshes have been destroyed since the 70s. In 1994, 60 percent of the wetlands were destroyed by Saddam Hussein's regime. They were drained to permit military access and greater political control of the native Marsh Arabs. Canals, dykes and dams were built routing the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers around the marshes, instead of allowing water to move slowly through the marshland. After part of the Euphrates was dried up due to re-routing its water to the sea, a dam was built so water could not back up from the Tigris and sustain the former marshland. Some marshlands were burned and buried pipes underground helped to carry away water for quicker drying.
The drying of the marshes lead to the disappearance of the salt-tolerant vegetation, the plankton rich waters that fertilized surrounding soils, 52 native fish species, the wild boar, Red Fox, buffalo and water birds of the marsh habitat.
Conservation status : critical/endangered
Protected area :
Endemic species : Basra Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis), Iraq Babbler (Turdoides altirostris)
Threatened species : Basra Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) - ENDANGERED
Extinct species : subspecies of rat and another of otter