A success story: restoration of the Azraq Wetland, Jordan

©Hazem Khreisha

A success story: restoration of the Azraq Wetland, Jordan

March 23, 2021

When you are wandering in the heart of the eastern desert of Jordan and you want to get a break from the hassle of traveling, you should not miss visiting the sparkling blue jewel in the desert, the Azraq Oasis, and enjoy the magic of its picturesque beauty with its ancient pools, clear water, aquatic plants, and flocks of migratory birds coming from three continents, using it as a stopover to rest and feeding.

The Azraq Oasis is a wetland of unique international importance located between a limestone desert on the west and a basalt desert on the east. In addition to its natural and biological richness, it is distinguished by its historical and cultural richness thanks to its strategic location and water resources. It is home to many important archaeological sites, including the famous “desert castles”. In addition, the Azraq Reserve is now a source of income for around 60 families from the local community. For more information, please consult the sheet of Azraq Reserve here.

Azraq Wetland. Photo ©Hazem Khreisha


When human nature can’t resist destroying nature itself

Nevertheless, as in many other scenarios affecting wetlands in the Mediterranean region, the Azraq Oasis has been subjected to anthropogenic activities that have impacted its functioning and ecological value and led to its degradation. The Reserve suffered from abuse and overuse of water from the Azraq Basin, an activity that increased in 1980 and caused an environmental disaster.

According to the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), due to the excessive pumping of water from the oasis to large urban areas and the illegal drilling of artesian wells for agricultural purposes, water levels have steadily dropped over the course of 50 years, starting to decrease significantly in 1981 and reaching alarming rates in 1993. These high levels of water extraction resulted in the extreme depletion of this natural oasis, drying up massive areas of invaluable wetland, equaling over 25 km2. In 1992, the main springs which were feeding the wetland had dried out and the water level reached a depth of 12 meters below ground level. The water body that used to be a thriving ecological hotspot has dwindled alarmingly to cover 0.04% of the area it used to cover in the past. The effects of this process can be clearly seen in the declining numbers of birds stopping over in the Azraq wetland on their migratory route.

Restoring what we destroy, the only way forward to survive

In order to save this natural jewel, RSCN managed in 1994, with international support, to restore a significant part of the wetland and to build special boardwalks and bird hides to allow visitors to observe the birds that finally returned to the wetland.

In September 2020, as a continuation of the habitat restoration efforts in the Azraq Wetland Reserve and with support from the French Global Environment Facility (FFEM) and French Development Agency (AFD), RSCN started rehabilitating three existing pools in the reserve. RSCN firstly stopped pumping water into these pools and then dried them out completely. 

Water bodies drying up in the Azraq Reserve. Photo: ©Hazem Khreisha
The Visitor’s Centre Pool drying out. Photo: ©Hazem Khreisha

Drying out the three pools was especially necessary after the increase in the number of exotic fish, algae and aquatic plants and a significant increase in phosphorus rates, in addition to the destruction of the edges of these pools as a result of the continuous entry of water buffalos into them. The pools became unsuitable habitats for most vertebrate species previously occurring, especially the Azraq killifish (Aphanius sirhani), endemic to the oasis and whose numbers have decreased dramatically in these pools.

By the use of heavy machinery, peripheral reeds and typhas were controlled, and top soil was added so as to allow gentle slopes and avoid too deep habitats.

Photo: ©Hazem Khreisha
Drying up a pool and adding some soil to its surface to reduce its depth. Photo by Hazem Khreisha

Pools were thus prepared with appropriate shoreline edges, levels, etc., to form “new” water bodies free of alien species. Thereafter, water was allowed to flow once more into the restored pools, and vegetation quickly recolonized them.

Starting to pump water again into the bird hide pool in October 2020. Photo by Hazem Khreisha
The bird hide pool in Azraq Wetland was filling up after pumping water in November 2020. Photo by Hazem Khreisha
The state of the Bird hide pool, in Azraq Wetland, three months after its restoration, Photo by Hazem Khreisha

Then by mid-December 2020, ca. 650 killifish individuals were collected from other pools in the reserve and reintroduced to this restored environment. 

During the process of rehabilitation and release of fish, many killifish passed through water culverts to other water pools, especially through the drainage system. The Common kingfisher has also become a regular visitor to the recently restored pools, thanks to the killifish that feed this bird.

Reintroducing Azraq endemic killifish to the restored water pools. Photo: ©Hazem Khreisha

RSCN thereafter conducted a water quality monitoring in the pools by testing devices like TDS, temperature, conductivity, and PH.

Habitat Rangers cutting reeds from water pools as part of the monitoring in Azraq Wetland. Photo by Hazem Khreisha

Restoration benefits human well-being and biodiversity 

This successful restoration of pools generated a wide range of benefits–not only for the only endemic fish (Sirhani fish), but prepared appropriate habitats for Azraq killifish and migratory birds, provided more natural landscapes for Azraq Reserve visitors, and led to preserving and maintaining 10% of the former oasis which is the strategic goal of the Reserve management plan.

 ©Vlatka D. Mazal

The decision to rehabilitate Azraq wetland habitats was based on a scientific and thoughtful decision through an Azraq killifish survey conducted in the Reserve recently. The Reserve management implements these recommendations of the study through the Habitats Committee in the Reserve, which recommended draining the three water bodies and working on the rehabilitation of habitats in cooperation with the French Agency for international cooperation and FFEM within the project of wetlands and civil society institutions in the Mediterranean region. The rehabilitation works aim at rehabilitating and renewing life in the water bodies, making them free from alien fish species like tilapia and carp, in addition to recreating appropriate habitats for migratory birds.
Hazem Khreisha
Manager of Azraq Reserve

These restoration activities were part of an initiative by the Mediterranean Alliance for Wetlands, funded through an AFD-FFEM-funded micro-project. Its primary objective is to halt further degradation of the aquatic ecosystems in the oasis and to restore as much of the wetlands as possible to a natural or near-natural condition with a view to maintaining the biological diversity of this unique wetland ecosystem. Another important aim of the project is to establish a sustainable basis for the utilization of the water resources of the Azraq Basin.

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