In 1978, RSCN established Azraq Wetland Reserve to conserve the uniquely precious oasis located in the heart of Jordan’s eastern desert, between a limestone desert in the west and a basalt desert in the east. It is distinguished by lush marshland and natural water collections that form glittering pools and streams, giving Azraq its name, which is the Arabic word for ‘blue’.
In 1977, the Ramsar Convention declared Azraq Wetland and the adjacent mudflat (Qa) as a major station for migratory birds on the African-Eurasian flyway. A variety of birds flock to the reserve each year, stopping for a short rest along their migration routes, staying for the winter, or breeding within the wetland. The Azraq wetland is the only oasis in the Arabian Desert with a self-replenishing system that has allowed it to sustain itself throughout the years.
Unfortunately, the wetland suffered an environmental disaster because of abuse and overuse of water from the Azraq Basin. Due to 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 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 which can be clearly seen in declining numbers of birds stopping over in Azraq wetland on their migratory route.
Before water pumping dramatically increased in the 1980s, the oasis provided a sparkling blue jewel in the desert, attracting up to a million migrating birds at one time, as it marks one of the major bird migratory routes. At times, an upwards glance at the Azraq sky would find it teeming with masses of birds, blocking out the light of day. By 1993, the extraction of water was so great that no surface water remained and the oasis’s ecological value was virtually destroyed.
With international support, RSCN began a rescue effort in 1994 and managed to restore a significant portion of the wetland, and aims to increase depleted water levels by 10 percent. So far, this target has not been achieved due to continued water pumping, lack of manpower, and a lack of experience in wetland management. However, thanks to RSCN's efforts, many birds for which Azraq was once renowned for are coming back, and special boardwalks and bird hides have been constructed to enable visitors to observe and enjoy them.
The wetland is a location of rich biodiversity, providing a natural habitat for numerous aquatic and terrestrial species, including the Azraq Killifish Aphanius sirhani, the only true endemic vertebrate species of Jordan. Due to the degradation of the species native habitat, the killifish is a critically endangered species as identified by the World Conservation Union IUCN. Restoration work has been done on its habitat, in order to protect the species from extinction. RSCNs efforts have been highly effective in this area, greatly increasing the numbers of killifish in their natural habitat.