Despite continued political instability, pressure from Iranian and American influence, and a resurgent ISIL (ISIS) presence, Iraq faces its most important challenge elsewhere: climate change.
The environment is increasingly becoming an issue for the country, with the future habitability of vast areas now at stake.
The Euphrates and Tigris rivers are historically considered the lifelines of Iraq’s fertile land. However, climate change and associated drought are wreaking havoc on an unprecedented scale.
Agriculture remains the livelihood of most people across the country, but Iraqi farmers are increasingly confronted with the frightening reality that water supplies are rapidly drying up.
The World Bank recently warned that Iraq would be particularly hard hit by climate change, with a significant impact on the economy and employment.
The country could experience a 20 percent drop in water resources by 2050, with nearly one-third of Iraq’s irrigated land being left dry.
“Without action, water restrictions will lead to huge losses across various sectors of the economy and affect more and more vulnerable people,” said the World Bank’s Saroj Kumar Jha.
George Zittis, co-research scientist on the impact of climate change at the Cyprus Institute, said Iraq and surrounding areas have seen accelerated warming of about 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.7 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade over the past 40 years.
“These local heating rates are greater than the global ones,” Zittis told Al Jazeera. “The country has also experienced more frequent and extreme heat waves. Especially in the last decade several temperature records have been broken… Hydrological and agricultural droughts affect various activities, including agriculture and food production. ”
He noted that Iraq and the wider Middle East region are considered to be the most prominent climate change hotspots in the world with “limited resources for adaptation”.
Aid groups have warned more than 12 million people in Iraq and Syria have lost access to water, food and electricity due to rising temperatures and record low rainfall.
‘Acute water insecurity’
Zeinab Shuker, assistant professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University, told Al Jazeera that unlike rising temperatures, the construction of dams by neighboring Iran and Turkey to manage their water shortages is diverting river water from the Tigris and Euphrates.
Shuker said Baghdad’s “inability” to negotiate with Tehran and Ankara over the water diversion, along with Iraq’s failure to address water shortages with appropriate measures, as well as outdated irrigation systems and rising salinity, all contribute to an emerging humanitarian crisis.
“Everyone is contributing to a huge water shortage, undermining the agricultural sector and forcing unplanned migration from rural areas to cities, putting further pressure on already high levels of unemployment, poverty and population density in cities,” she explained.
“The first primary issue is acute water insecurity.”
Zittis said “business-as-usual” efforts to tackle climate change currently being employed by governments around the world are likely to lead to additional averages heating of about 2.5C (4.5F) by 2050.
“And this heating will probably exceed 5C [9F] by the year 2100. In other words, even the coolest years of the future will be comparable to the warmest years of the recent past… It will result in heat waves of unprecedented magnitude and duration, ”Zittis said.
The most vulnerable in Iraqi society will face tremendous danger with crop and income shortages, a lack of drinking water and the increase in malnutrition and hunger, analysts say.
If the status quo over rising temperatures does not change, Iraq will lose much of its agricultural land, Shuker noted.
“It will force more and more families and individuals to migrate to the already crowded cities … Others will try to make the dangerous journey to Europe to join the many climate migrants from across the region,” she said. said.
Another problem facing Iraqis is the country’s inability to properly refine natural gas, which means that efforts to stay cool through air conditioning are increasingly unaffordable.
“Iraq’s limited ability to separate and process natural gas is forcing the country to rely heavily on Iranian gas and electricity imports – which were irregular – to meet its growing electricity needs,” Shuker said.
“The combination of irregular electricity supply and high temperatures – which often reached above 50C [122F] “and is expected to increase even more as a result of climate change – forcing many Iraqis to depend on privately owned and operated generators for their electricity needs, which are costly to many Iraqi families.”
What can be done?
With such a dire future, efforts to drastically reduce hydrocarbon emissions and take measures to to adapt to the warming planet is urgently needed, analysts say.
Zittis underlined that nations in the Middle East worldwide are one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
“Most of these emissions are related to the energy production sector. Therefore, to mitigate global and regional warming, these emissions must be significantly reduced within the next decades. “A transition to renewable energy sources seems to be the coherent solution,” said Zittis.
Scientific research will play a key role in reducing the dangers posed by climate change, but Iraq and other MENA countries are far behind in such planning, Zittis noted.
“Such adaptation plans require high-precision climate datasets, interdisciplinary approaches and collaborative research, which are currently lacking in the region,” he said.
Some measures needed to reduce the effects of global warming include optimizing water resource management and agricultural practices, ensuring energy access through renewable energy, improving the energy efficiency of buildings, and developing early warning and forecasting systems for extreme weather preparation. “, Zittis said.
Iraq’s current government has so far failed to take the necessary steps.
“The political leaders do not have a clear long-term policy in place,” Shuker said, emphasizing that power struggles between various political factions do not bode well for climate action.
“Resources from the rentier economy have helped finance many of the operations of these centers of power. One could even argue that a large part of their survival depends on their access to oil revenues. Consequently, even if there is a state capacity that can tackle something as complex as climate change, there is a limited political will to do so. ”