The Mesopotamian Marshes were once the largest wetlands in the Middle East and Western Eurasia. The Marshes formed from annual flood pulses of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In the 1970s, the Marshes covered between 15,000 and 20,000 km2 of water surface and vegetation. The indigenous people of the Marshes, the Marsh Arabs, have practiced sustainable traditional resource management for thousands of years, developing an iconic way of life that ties them intimately to their wetland landscape. 
Gaining a certain mastery over the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates through irrigation canals and flood protection was a vital factor in the settlement of lower Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. No specific plans, however, had been made to drain the marshlands until in the second half of the twentieth century. 
The draining of the Mesopotamia Marshes occurred between the 1950s and 1990s. The three main sub-marshes of Hawizeh, Central, and Hammar Marshes were drained at different times for different reasons. These reasons vary between clearing land for agriculture, irrigation, reduce breeding ground of mosquitoes or facilitate exploitation of untapped petroleum reserves. 
The indigenous Marsh Arabs became either Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or environmental refugees exiled to other countries.  Many of the Marsh Arab communities that were exiled before the fall of the previous regime returned to the Marshes in 2003. Unfortunately, due to lack of water, the former political refugees became environmental refugees, forced into becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). People fled their homes primarily due to lack of water rather than from security, conflicts, or lack of employment. Drought, water salinity, and pollution are the major factors preventing IDPs from returning to their original communities. 
Marsh desiccation has resulted in a distinct decrease in traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and traditional resource management by Marsh Arab women, leaving few opportunities to engage in traditional activities. TEK provides great cultural significance and socioeconomic benefits to Marsh Arab women and their families. While some TEK is still utilized today, most traditional knowledge is being lost due to lack of application. A clear example of this is that there are no longer traditional uses of medicinal plants by women. Other traditional ecological practices that are at particular risk include: rhythms of seasonal reed harvest and use, handicraft construction and sale from reeds, water buffalo husbandry and dairy production, and agricultural production. 
The partial restoration of the Mesopotamian marshes has been heralded as one of the few success stories to emerge from Iraq's chaos. Nowadays, however, the greatly reduced water flow of the two rivers that feed the marshes—the Tigris and the Euphrates—once more threatens the livelihoods of some of the area's inhabitants.  From a high of around 75 percent restored in 2008, the wetlands are now at 58 percent of their average pre-drained level and look set to shrink below 50 percent this summer.  Locals are torn about what ought to be done as some fishermen want to march to Baghdad to draw attention to their predicament. The central government has commissioned a detailed study on how to protect the marshes, but environmentalists are skeptical that it will lead to a solution anytime soon. 
Following the national recognition of the international importance and value of wetlands, since 2008 Iraq has become a Party of the Ramsar Convention on Wetland, designating its first Ramsar site: the Hawizeh marsh. 
Iraq currently has 4 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites), with a surface area of 537,900 hectares.