When United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk visited southern Iraq on August 9, he remarked that the summer heat and pollution that afflicted the area represented a new “era of global boiling.” Indeed, the UN has classified Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world in terms of decreased water, food availability, and extreme temperatures. This is far from surprising, given that the temperature in Iraq has increased seven times quicker than the world average while precipitation has continuously decreased. The ramifications are obvious; Iraq’s water supply is rapidly decreasing, and droughts occur with increasingly alarming frequency. These trends are already impacting the agricultural sector and, in turn, other basic facets of life in the country. Because the causes of Iraq’s environmental degradation reflect decades of governmental mismanagement and the confluence of several external factors, reversing the consequences of global warming in Iraq will prove a Herculean task. In this context, the upcoming COP28 conference offers a crucial platform for Iraq to voice its challenges and seek international collaboration and support. The conference presents an opportunity for Iraq to engage with global leaders, experts, and organizations in finding sustainable solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change and pave the way for a more resilient future.
The Dual Threat of Drought and Desertification
An increase in the frequency and severity of droughts marks one of the most obvious effects of global warming in Iraq. According to the Iraqi government, average annual rainfall has become less predictable since the 1970s and has decreased by 10% in the last two decades. Scholars estimate that by 2050, precipitation will decrease by 25% in Iraq from pre-2000 levels, which will exacerbate desertification and water scarcity. 2021 and 2022 were the driest years since the 1980s, when the country last experienced such severe drought. Increased temperatures and weakened precipitation patterns have affected crop yields and agricultural productivity. In turn, poor yields imperil already precarious food security and GDP growth across Iraq. In Kirkuk, 84% of farmers reported a decrease in wheat production, while in Basra and Salah al-Din, 75% of respondents reported losses. Another study of the 2021 drought showed that more than 37% of wheat crops and 30% of barley crops failed entirely. In the Ninewa province, wheat production decreased by 70%, while in the Kurdistan Region (KRG) production decreased by half. The KRG, already beset by unique domestic and external challenges, is particularly vulnerable to droughts. Erbil, for instance, “suffered a drought between 2007 and 2011” that compounded the region’s perilous position.
Global warming has also crippled Iraq’s water supply. Climate change has caused the waters of the vital Tigris and Euphrates to evaporate more quickly. Upstream, Iraq’s neighbors have restricted river inflows, and higher temperatures reduce the mountain snowpack that feed these critical waterways. Other wetlands demonstrate the severity of Iraq’s position. For instance, water levels at Sawa lake on the edge of Iraq’s western desert began to drop in 2014. Eight years later, the water has vanished completely. The dramatic transformation of Sawa lake is reflective of Iraq’s water insecurity troubles, absent significant government action., According to the World Bank, “in a business-as-usual scenario, the widening gap between water supply and demand is expected to increase from around 5 billion to 11 billion cubic meters by 2035,” threatening Iraq’s long-term development prospects. Water scarcity will only become more acute in the future because of Iraq’s booming population, compounding potable water scarcity and all but guaranteeing greater social instability.
A Wave of Public Discontent, Left Unaddressed
As the country’s water resources dwindle, social discontent at government inaction has swelled. The ineptitude of the Iraqi government has been laid bare by its failure to address this existential threat. In 2022, Iraq experienced nine sandstorms within two months, and, as a result, 2,000 cases of suffocation in Baghdad alone. In Basra, 118,000 people have been hospitalized because of water degradation and pollution—the result of decades of governmental neglect. The contamination of Basra’s main water source shocks the conscience. Total dissolved solids (tds), a measure of pollutants in water sources, reached 7,500 tds, far surpassing the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 1,200. The KRG has also witnessed demonstrations against water shortages. In 2021, Erbil lacked running water “for several weeks.” Authorities declined to dig a new well that would alleviate water stress, further turning the population against the government. Finally, out of the 1 million internally displaced Iraqis, many live in areas with heightened food and water insecurity, such as Anbar and Salah Al-Din. One the other hand, women are being affected more by climate change than men in Iraq. Because of pre-existing gender roles and inequality, Iraqi women lack the options and resources that men possess.
To address the grave ramifications of global warming, Iraq must pursue structural changes that will prepare future generations for the increased temperatures and diminished water supply that will typify the Iraq of the future. Baghdad must initiate economic diversification initiatives that foster innovation and reduce the country’s reliance on commodity production, climate change awareness programs to inform citizens of the perils of excessive water consumption, and a national strategy to reduce carbon emissions. The average Iraqi consumes great volumes of water, compared to the global average. Additionally, Iraq is also very dependent on oil, the extraction, refining, and burning of which only leads to more pollution and consumes a great deal of water. Regrettably, the Iraqi government is embroiled in fierce domestic competition between elite political factions, with each prioritizing its own myopic agenda over the nation’s collective interest. Global warming and its ramifications are a tertiary issue for Iraqi politicians, perpetually left to future governments. Action is desperately required, or the government risks letting Iraq’s future prospects evaporate like a drop of rain on a hot day.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.