Tigris–Euphrates river system

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Tigris–Euphrates river system
Realm Palearctic
Biome temperate floodplain rivers and wetlands
Area879,790 km2 (339,690 sq mi)
Oceans or seasempties into the Persian Gulf
Rivers Tigris, Euphrates, Greater Zab, Lesser Zab.

The Tigris–Euphrates river system is a large river system in Western Asia that discharges into the Persian Gulf. Its principal rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates, along with smaller tributaries.


From their sources and upper courses in the mountains of eastern Turkey, the rivers descend through valleys and gorges to the uplands of Syria and northern Iraq and then to the alluvial plain of central Iraq. Other tributaries join the Tigris from sources in the Zagros Mountains to the east. The rivers flow in a south-easterly direction through the central plain and combine at Al-Qurnah to form the Shatt al-Arab and discharge into the Persian Gulf. [1] The rivers and their tributaries drain an area of 879,790 km2, [2] including almost the entire area of Iraq as well as portions of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Kuwait. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

The region has historical importance as part of the Fertile Crescent region, where Mesopotamian civilization first emerged.


The Tigris–Euphrates Basin is shared between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait. [6] [3] [4] [5] [7] Many tributaries of the Tigris river originate in Iran, and the Shatt al-Arab, formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, makes up a portion of the Iran–Iraq border, with Kuwait's Bubiyan Island being part of its delta. [8] [9] Since the 1960s and in the 1970s, when Turkey began the GAP project in earnest, water disputes have regularly occurred in addition to the associated dam's effects on the environment. In addition, Syrian and Iranian dam construction has also contributed to political tension within the basin, particularly during drought.

The ecoregion is characterized by two large rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. The high mountains in the upper watershed receive more rain and snow than the lower watershed, which has a hot and arid subtropical climate. Annual snow melt from the mountains brings spring floods, and sustains permanent and seasonal marshes in the lowlands.

The plain between the two rivers 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 this reason, it is often described as a "Cradle of Civilization".

There is a large floodplain in the lower basin where the Euphrates, Tigris, and Karun rivers converge to create the Mesopotamian Marshes, which include permanent lakes, marshes, and riparian forests. The hydrology of these vast marshes is extremely important to the ecology of the entire upper Persian Gulf.


The confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was the place where some of the first civilisations emerged. From ancient times empires arose and fell in the river basin, including Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, Assyria, and the Abbasid Caliphate.


The most abundant fishes are species of barbs ( Barbus ), some of which can reach up to two meters in length. Some species have been important food sources for residents for thousands of years. Many species move seasonally between the river and the marshes for spawning, feeding, and overwintering. The Hilsa shad (Tenualosa ilisha) is an important food fish that lives in the coastal waters and spawns in the lower reaches of the basin. Other ocean species occasionally visit the lower reaches of the rivers; bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) used to swim up the Tigris as far as Baghdad. [10]

Endemic fish species in the lower basin include Glyptothorax steindachneri and Hemigrammocapoeta elegans , and as well as two cave fishes, Caecocypris basimi and the Iraq blind barb (Typhlogarra widdowsoni), from a cave habitat near Haditha on the Euphrates. [10]

One-third of the fish species in the upper watersheds are endemic, including species of Aphanius, Glyptothorax, Cobitis, Orthrias , and Schistura . Two blind fish species, the Iran cave barb (Iranocypris typhlops) and the Zagros blind loach (Eidinemacheilus smithi), are endemic to cave systems in Iran's upper Karun River watershed. [11] The Batman River loach (Paraschistura chrysicristinae) is a Critically Endangered fish species endemic to the Batman and Ambar rivers, Turkish tributaries of the Tigris. The species is endangered by drought, habitat destruction, and habitat fragmentation from the construction of the Batman Dam. It had not been observed since 1974 and was feared extinct until a 2021 expedition netted 14 fish living above the Batman Dam. [12]

Mesopotamian Marshes

Marsh Arabs poling a mashoof in the marshes of southern Iraq Marsh Arabs in a mashoof.jpg
Marsh Arabs poling a mashoof in the marshes of southern Iraq

The Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq were historically the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia. 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. The wetland birds Basra reed warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) and Iraq babbler (Argya altirostris) are endemic to the Mesopotamian Marshes. The Basra reed warbler is endangered. Another wetland endemic species, Bunn's short-tailed bandicoot rat (Nesokia bunnii), is possibly extinct.

Their drainage began in the 1950s, to reclaim land for agriculture and oil exploration. Saddam Hussein extended this work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as part of ecological warfare against the Marsh Arabs, a rebellious group of people in Baathist Iraq. However, with the breaching of the dikes by local communities after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ending of a four-year drought that same year, the process has been reversed and the marshes have experienced a substantial rate of recovery. The permanent wetlands now cover more than 50% of pre-1970s levels, with a remarkable regrowth of the Hammar and Hawizeh Marshes and some recovery of the Central Marshes. [13]

Ecological threats

This visualization shows variations in total water storage from normal, in millimeters, in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, from January 2003 through December 2009. Reds represent drier conditions, while blues represent wetter conditions. The effects of the seasons are evident, as is the major drought that hit the region in 2007. The majority of the water lost was due to reductions in groundwater caused by human activities.

Iraq suffers from desertification and soil salination due in large part to thousands of years of agricultural activity. Water and plant life are sparse. Saddam Hussein's government water-control projects drained the inhabited marsh areas east of An Nasiriyah by drying up or diverting streams and rivers. Shi'a Muslims were displaced under the Ba'athist regime. The destruction of the natural habitat poses serious threats to the area's wildlife populations. There are also inadequate supplies of potable water.

The marshlands were an extensive natural wetlands ecosystem, which developed over thousands of years in the Tigris–Euphrates basin and once covered 15–20,000 square kilometers. In the 1980s, this ecoregion was put in grave danger during the Iran–Iraq War. The Mesopotamian Marshes, which were inhabited by the Marsh Arabs, were almost completely drained. Although they had started to recover after the fall of Ba'athist Iraq in 2003, drought, intensive dam construction and irrigation schemes upstream have caused them to dry up once more. [14] According to the United Nations Environmental Program and the AMAR Charitable Foundation, between 84% and 90% of the marshes have been destroyed since the 1970s. In 1994, 60 percent of the wetlands were destroyed by Hussein's regime – 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 pipes buried underground helped to carry away water for quicker drying.

The drying of the marshes led 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.

Climate change in Turkey and climate change in Iraq are also a threat. [15]

Water dispute

The issue of water rights became a point of contention for Iraq, Turkey and Syria beginning in the 1960s when Turkey implemented a public-works project (the GAP project) aimed at harvesting the water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers through the construction of 22 dams, for irrigation and hydroelectric energy purposes. Although the water dispute between Turkey and Syria was more problematic, the GAP project was also perceived as a threat by Iraq. The tension between Turkey and Iraq about the issue was increased by the effect of Syria and Turkey's participation in the UN embargo against Iraq following the Gulf War. However, the issue had never become as significant as the water dispute between Turkey and Syria. [16]

The 2008 drought in Iraq sparked new negotiations between Iraq and Turkey over trans-boundary river flows. Although the drought affected Turkey, Syria and Iran as well, Iraq complained regularly about reduced water flows. Iraq particularly complained about the Euphrates River because of the large number of dams on the river. Turkey agreed to increase the flow several times, beyond its means in order to supply Iraq with extra water. Iraq has seen significant declines in water storage and crop yields because of the drought. To make matters worse, Iraq's water infrastructure has suffered from years of conflict and neglect. [17]

In 2008, Turkey, Iraq and Syria agreed to restart the Joint Trilateral Committee on water for the three nations for better water resources management. Turkey, Iraq and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding on September 3, 2009, in order to strengthen communication within the Tigris–Euphrates Basin and to develop joint water-flow-monitoring stations. On September 19, 2009, Turkey formally agreed to increase the flow of the Euphrates River to 450 to 500 m³/s, but only until October 20, 2009. In exchange, Iraq agreed to trade petroleum with Turkey and help curb Kurdish militant activity in their border region. One of Turkey's last large GAP dams on the Tigris – the Ilisu Dam – is strongly opposed by Iraq and is the source of political strife. [18]

In media

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Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Euphrates</span> River in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria

The Euphrates is the longest and one of the most historically important rivers of Western Asia. Together with the Tigris, it is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia. Originating in Turkey, the Euphrates flows through Syria and Iraq to join the Tigris in the Shatt al-Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Iraq</span> Geographic features of Iraq

The geography of Iraq is diverse and falls into five main regions: the desert, Upper Mesopotamia, the northern highlands of Iraq, Lower Mesopotamia, and the alluvial plain extending from around Tikrit to the Persian Gulf.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Kuwait</span>

Kuwait is a country in West Asia, bordering the Persian Gulf, between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is located at the far northwestern corner of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is 17,820 square kilometres in size. At its most distant points, it is about 200 km (120 mi) north to south, and 170 km (110 mi) east to west. Kuwait has 10 islands. Kuwait's area consists mostly of desert.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tigris</span> River in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria

The Tigris is the eastern of the two great rivers that define Mesopotamia, the other being the Euphrates. The river flows south from the mountains of the Armenian Highlands through the Syrian and Arabian Deserts, and empties into the Persian Gulf.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marsh Arabs</span> Indigenous people of southern Iraq

The Marsh Arabs, also referred to as Ahwaris, the Maʻdān or Shroog, "those from the east")—the latter two often considered derogatory in the present day—are Arabian inhabitants of the Mesopotamian marshlands in the modern-day south Iraq, as well as in the Hawizeh Marshes straddling the Iraq-Iran border.

The wildlife of Iraq includes its flora and fauna and their natural habitats. Iraq has multiple biomes from mountainous region in the north to the wet marshlands along the Euphrates river. The western part of the country is mainly desert and some semi-arid regions. As of 2001, seven of Iraq's mammal species and 12 of its bird species were endangered. The endangered species include the northern bald ibis and Persian fallow deer. The Syrian wild ass is extinct, and the Saudi Arabian dorcas gazelle was declared extinct in 2008.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mesopotamian Marshes</span> Wetland ecoregion located in southern Iraq and partially in southwestern Iran and Kuwait

The Mesopotamian Marshes, also known as the Iraqi Marshes, are a wetland area located in Southern Iraq and in southwestern Iran. The marshes are primarily located on the floodplains of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers bound by the cities of Basra, Nasiriyah, Amarah and a portion of southwestern Iran. Historically the marshlands, mainly composed of the separate but adjacent Central, Hawizeh and Hammar Marshes, used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia. The unique wetland landscape is home to the Marsh people, who have developed a unique culture tightly coupled to the landscape – harvesting reeds and rice, fishing and herding water buffalo.

Al-Qurnah is a town in southern Iraq about 74 km northwest of Basra, that lies within the conglomeration of Nahairat. Qurna is located at the confluence point of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to form the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Local folklore holds Qurnah to have been the original site of biblical paradise, the Garden of Eden, and location of the Tree of Knowledge.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glory River</span> Canal in Iraq

The Glory River , Glory Canal or Prosperity Canal is a shallow canal in Iraq about two kilometers wide built by Saddam Hussein in 1993 to redirect water flowing from the Tigris river into the Euphrates, near their confluence at the Shatt al-Arab. It helped cause an environmental and humanitarian disaster since it diverted natural water flow from the Central Marshes and effectively converted much of the wetlands into a desert.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes</span> Saddam Husseins campaigns to drain marshes and force population transfer

The Mesopotamian Marshes were drained in Iraq and to a smaller degree in Iran between the 1950s and 1990s to clear large areas of the marshes in the Tigris-Euphrates river system. The marshes formerly covered an area of around 20,000 km2 (7,700 sq mi). The main sub-marshes, the Hawizeh, Central, and Hammar marshes, were drained at different times for different reasons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hammar Marshes</span> Marshes in Southern Iraq; a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Hammar Marshes are a large wetland complex in southeastern Iraq that are part of the Mesopotamian Marshes in the Tigris–Euphrates river system. Historically, the Hammar Marshes extended up to 4,500 km2 (1,700 sq mi) during seasonal floods. They were destroyed during the 1990s by large-scale drainage, dam and dike construction projects. Since 2003, they are recovering following reflooding and destruction of dams.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Euphrates softshell turtle</span> Species of turtle

The Euphrates softshell turtle, also known as the Mesopotamian softshell turtle, is a species of softshell turtle in the family Trionychidae. It is found throughout much of the Euphrates–Tigris river basin in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Khūzestān Province of Iran. Historically it has also been reported from Israel, but this likely involves confusion with the very similar Trionyx triunguis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hawizeh Marshes</span> Marshes in Iran and Iraq; UNESCO World Heritage site

The Hawizeh Marshes are a complex of marshes that straddle the Iran–Iraq border. The marshes are fed by two branches of the Tigris River in Iraq and the Karkheh River in Iran. The Hawizeh marsh is critical to the survival of the Central and Hammar marshes also make up the Mesopotamian Marshes, because they are a refuge for species that may recolonize or reproduce in other marshlands. Hawizeh Marshes are drained by the Al-Kassarah. This river plays a critical role in maintaining the marshes as a flow-through system and preventing it from becoming a closed saline basin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Central Marshes</span> Marshes in Iraq; UNESCO World Heritage site

The Central or Qurna Marshes are a large complex of wetlands in Iraq that, along with the Hawizeh and Hammar marshes, make up the Mesopotamian Marshes of the Tigris–Euphrates river system. Formerly covering an area of around 3000 square kilometres, they were almost completely drained following the 1991 uprisings in Iraq and have in recent years been reflooded.

Water supply and sanitation in Iraq is characterized by poor water and service quality. Three decades of war, combined with limited environmental awareness, have destroyed Iraq's water resources management system. Thus, Iraq faces difficulties to realize the target of 91% of households using safe drinking water supply by 2015. Currently, 16% of households report daily problems with supply and 20% use an unsafe drinking water source. Furthermore, animal waste and septic tanks pollute the drinking water network.(11)

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Middle East steppe</span> Ecoregion of Jordan, Syria and Iraq

The Middle East steppe ecoregion stretches in an arc from southern Jordan across Syria and Iraq to the western border of Iran. The upper plains of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers dominate most of the ecoregion. The terrain is mostly open shrub steppe. The climate is arid. Evidence is that this region was once more of a forest-steppe, but centuries of overgrazing and gathering firewood have reduced tree and grass cover to small areas and along the riverine corridors. Despite the degraded condition of the steppe environment, the ecoregion is important for water birds as the rivers and reservoirs provide habitat in the arid region.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mesopotamian shrub desert</span> Desert ecoregion in West Asia

The Mesopotamian shrub desert is a deserts and xeric shrublands ecoregion in Western Asia. It extends across portions of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.


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  6. 1 2 Deniz Bozkurt; Omer Lutfi Sen (2012). "Hydrological response of past and future climate changes in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin" (PDF). p. 1. The Euphrates-Tigris Basin, covering areas in five countries (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Kuwait), is a major water resource of the Middle East.
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  13. Iraqi Marshlands: Steady Progress to Recovery Archived 2011-06-08 at the Wayback Machine (UNEP)
  14. "Iraq marshes face grave new threat". February 24, 2009 via news.bbc.co.uk.
  15. "Climate". climatechangeinturkey.com. Retrieved 2021-02-19.
  17. "Turkey lets more water out of dams to Iraq: MP". Reuters. 23 May 2009.
  18. "Turkey to up Euphrates flow to Iraq". AFP. 19 September 2009. Archived from the original on 31 December 2010.

Further reading