In early June 2023, United Nations representatives spoke about Iraq’s current drought in Baghdad. Unfortunately, their outlook was grim. While Germans and Central Europeans were experiencing temperatures of 30-34 degrees and complaining about heatwaves, southern Iraq was facing prolonged temperatures above 50 degrees and long overdue rains. This has been destroying its marshlands, which is the ecosystem at the heart of the Middle East’s ‘fertile crescent’. Other areas along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are also facing significant challenges. If climate change in the region continues like this, it is predicted that by 2050, it will suffer more than 300 sandstorms a year. This will cause evaporation, reduced water flow, and lack of rainfall, which will reduce the entire country’s water capacity to a minimum. This will have serious consequences for both rural and urban populations as there will be too little water stored in the soil available for agriculture. More than a year ago, Iraqi Minister of Environment Jassim Abdul Aziz al-Falahi hinted at what scientists had predicted much earlier. In the coming decades, the effects of current events will extend to neighboring countries and the European community.
Similar to other Middle Eastern nations, Iraq is also experiencing increasingly challenging climatic conditions that are impacting the daily lives of its people. Access to fresh water is crucial for Iraq’s population to thrive, just as it allowed advanced civilizations to flourish in the region centuries ago. However, this is becoming more difficult due to various factors beyond Iraq’s control.
Lack of water leads to migration
In the early 1900s, the average water flow was 1,350 cubic metres per second, but today it has decreased to just 149 cubic metres per second. The tributaries that feed into the Euphrates, Tigris, and Diyala rivers are drying up at an alarming rate. Iraq’s mountainous areas are experiencing a drought, and neighboring countries like Iran and Turkey are building dams and retention basins while taking more water for themselves. Turkey, which provides almost 70% of Iraq’s fresh water, is implementing harsh policies to advance its interests in Iraq’s northern region, despite the agreement between Ankara and Baghdad in 2021 to increase water flow.
The already low water flow in Iraq is worsened by evapotranspiration, which causes 14.7% of surface water to evaporate annually. Areas that grow grains along the rivers and in the southern marshes are rapidly drying up. Several bodies of water, such as the Hamrim reservoir and the Umm Al-Binni lake, have already lost over 50% of their volume and are predicted to become desert within the next few years. Resultantly, local communities, mainly agricultural ones, are losing their livestock and entire livelihoods. These Iraqis, many of whom have lived in the country for generations, are forced to migrate to bigger cities where they struggle to survive.
As per the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement, more than 7,000 farmers and their families have departed from rural regions in 2022.Iraq’s urbanization rate had decreased in the late 1990s, but climate change has caused it to rise again. As of 2021, 71.2% of the population lives in cities such as Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, and Mosul. The migration from rural areas has resulted in additional issues, such as the challenges faced by many municipalities in maintaining their outdated water and electricity infrastructure. All of this is happening amidst the country’s ongoing political turmoil.
How the EU can help
State budgets are being burdened by internal migration. This is due to the state having to support food and fertilizer subsidies, as well as constantly providing for new imports. Inflation, the significant increase in the cost of food on global markets, and vulnerable supply chains are putting a strain on budgets and leading to new financial dependencies.
Despite the potential benefit of stabilizing Iraq’s budget, high oil prices cannot alone address the country’s challenges in maintaining a decent quality of life, especially for those who struggle with poor health. Public transportation is often disrupted by sandstorms, which can also cause respiratory illnesses. Additionally, prolonged heat waves with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius are resulting in higher mortality rates among vulnerable and elderly populations. Significant investments are necessary to improve these conditions.
Iraq cannot overcome its bleak future alone. Both civilians and the state require assistance to become climate-resilient. A collapsing state is not in the interest of its neighbors or the international community. To achieve this, exchanging knowledge on sustainable water use and providing technical expertise for new sewage treatment plants and water reclamation facilities is necessary. At the political level, mediation and diplomatic initiatives must be undertaken to ensure that Iraq receives more water. Additionally, European actors must increase their capacities to provide on-site support in the form of foresight scenarios, climate and weather forecasts, and local disaster relief. Iraq’s water infrastructure is in a terrible state due to decades of neglect and considerable mismanagement by political and economic actors. Repairing this is another way European actors can assist. Investments must be targeted towards specific projects to increase efficiency and prevent other state actors from misusing the funds.
If these measures are not taken for Iraq, it could lead to a nightmare scenario for regional and supra-regional security. Firstly, the loss of livelihoods for millions of people may create a breeding ground for extremist movements and recruitment areas for organizations like Daesh (IS) and Al-Qaida. Additionally, increased internal migration would put more pressure on Iraqi cities and present new challenges for civil society. This stress is already causing more people to migrate, which could have major consequences for Europe.
It’s in everyone’s best interest, both domestically and globally, to take action now to mitigate the effects of climate change. This will ensure that the future remains manageable and sustainable for generations to come.