17 June 2022, Baghdad – As Iraq confronts multiple challenges caused and exacerbated by climate change, including prolonged heat waves, declining precipitation, loss of fertile land, salinisation, insufficient infrastructure investments, transboundary water shortages and a prevalence of dust storms, the UN and NGOs in Iraq mark World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought with a call for action to protect the country from the devastating impacts.
Iraq is among the top 5 countries most affected by climate change, and the 39th most water stressed. Last year’s record low rainfall – the second driest season in 40 years – has led to water shortages, desertification, and soil erosion due to unsustainable agricultural practices and shrinking, damaged vegetation cover. Conflict has devastated land and water sources in Iraq, causing further soil erosion and contamination, while political uncertainty poses challenges to environmental governance.
The drastic decrease in farmland and biodiversity in agriculture, land degradation and the increase of sand dunes have all added to the strain, leading to animal migration and deaths. Some examples are the multiple dust storms experienced so far in 2022, which have even caused human fatalities, or Sawa Lake in Muthanna governorate drying up this year due to the water crisis. Left unattended, projections to 2040 show increasing stress on Iraq’s water sources, which also face significant challenges from pollution caused by the oil industry and sewage, weak environmental governance, and fires. Coupled with water scarcity, the removal of topsoil and decline in land productivity have led to reduced food production in Iraq. A 2021 survey, covering 7 governorates, found 37% of wheat farmers and 30% of barley farmers suffered crop failure. At the same time, incomes have plummeted as farmers do not have the harvested crops to sell, which directly impact upon food security.
The 4 million people living in Iraq’s downstream Basra governorate are most affected by water scarcity. The marshlands of Iraq, with their deep cultural and human heritage, and natural resources for livelihoods, once represented the first line of defence against climatic changes and environmental damage. Reduced river water levels in the once great Tigris and Euphrates have led to rising salt levels and deteriorating water quality. With annual evaporation up to 3 metres and lower river water, sea water has moved upriver to al-Qurna, destroying 60,000 acres of agricultural land and 30,000 trees.
As of March 2022, the displacement of an estimated 3,000 families due to drought and environmental degradation had been recorded across 8 governorates in central and southern Iraq. Recent studies have shown water scarcity to be one of the primary drivers of migration from rural to urban areas, alongside challenges to sustainable agriculture and food security.
Desertification and water scarcity disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Vulnerable families who have already suffered from conflict and displacement now risk being caught in the cycle of poverty for longer. Of particular concern are children in rural areas, who missed education opportunities due to conflict and COVID-19, that may now be forced to turn to child labour and early marriage to financially help their families meet their basic water and food needs.
Girls and women also face heightened vulnerability due to water scarcity, in large part due to gender inequality. Indeed, limited access to clean water affects menstrual hygiene, compromising the health and dignity of women and girls. Climate-related disasters also strain Iraq’s already stretched health systems. Without medical support during child delivery, the risk of preventable maternal death increases. Heightened tensions along with a breakdown in social cohesion may lead to increased gender-based violence, including sexual-based violence.
With the combined support of local and international actors, Iraq can work to overcome national and regional political uncertainty to mitigate the effects of climate change and land degradation, and address transnational water management. National and local authorities can urgently pursue the legislation and improved practices required for sustainable water management and consumption.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. The UN and NGOs in Iraq are working with the government and Iraqi universities on smart monitoring systems to track progress or regression on environmental targets, climate, water resources and land use. Such data is critical to equip decision-makers with the knowledge required to take action and form policy. Information is shared with communities to publicly support action planning and community-led decision making on drought prevention.
Stabilizing the soil and protecting its vegetation cover by encouraging efficient water use, replenishing water reservoirs, rehabilitating irrigation infrastructure, planting more trees, bushes and shrubs, developing sustainable green belts around cities, controlling mining activities, improving the quality of the soil and protecting it from salinisation through more sustainable agricultural and farming techniques, are all required. Providing eco-friendly irrigation solutions, and re-skilling farmers, for instance, in drip and smart types of irrigation, saves water and has a transformative positive impact.
From local community, local authorities and national government to international actors: only together, with the support of all, can we ensure a healthy future for Iraq’s land and water and the people who depend on it.
Irena Vojáčková-Sollorano, UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq
Ali Al-Karkhi, Managing Director, Humat Dijlah, Iraq
Ally Raza Qureshi, WFP Representative, Iraq
Brooke Gibbons, Country Director, Mercy Corps, Iraq
Dr. Rita Columbia, UNFPA Representative, Iraq
Dr. Salah ElHajjHassan, FAO Representative, Iraq
Edward Santiago, Country Director, Mission East, Iraq
George Gigauri, IOM Chief of Mission, Iraq
Ishtiaq Mannan, Country Director, Save the Children, Iraq
James Munn, Country Director, NRC, Iraq
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, UNHCR Representative, Iraq
Katie Thomas-Canfield, Country Director, ACF, Iraq
Khalid Aswad, Country Director, Al-Zahaa Association for Environmental Development, Iraq
Mads Oyen, OiC UNICEF Representative, Iraq
Sami Dimassi, Representative, Regional Director UN Environment West Asia
Sharon Thangadurai, Country Director, WVI, Iraq
Toon Bijnens, Chair, Save the Tigris
Wael Al-Ashhab, Head of Iraq Country Programme, UN-HABITAT, Iraq
Zena Ali Ahmad, UNDP Resident Representative, Iraq