In recent years, Iraq has been severely affected by climate change, with heat waves of above 50˚ C increasing in regularity. Climate change has had devastating effects on water and food security, jeopardizing the livelihoods of Iraqis. Consequently, the issue has gained more prominence in government circles, despite the country facing a multitude of other endemic problems. This article will reflect on how effective the emerging climate change policies have been in responding to food and water security issues in Iraq. It will discuss how collaborating with civil society and other actors working on the ground could strengthen the government’s plans for responding to the unfolding impacts of climate change and could turn climate cooperation into a core component of post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts.
What does Iraq heating mean for water and food security?
Temperatures have been on a steady rise across Iraq since the 1950s. On average, the country is 0.7˚ C hotter than it was 100 years ago and depending on how the world responds to climate change, average temperatures could rise by 2 to 3˚ C in Iraq over the next 100 years. The frequency of extreme temperatures in Iraq has also increased. For example, the middle and southern governorates have witnessed heatwaves of over 50˚ C in the last decade. Water resources are severely affected by these temperature changes, and by extent, food security and people’s livelihoods.
World Bank – Climate Change Knowledge Portal
In 2021, the Iraqi Ministries of Agriculture and Water Resources imposed some regulations to decrease the available land that farmers can use to cultivate wheat and barley by 50% because of severe water shortages. In 2018, cultivation of rice and other vital crops had been halted. To mitigate the impact on the livelihood of farmers, the government offers financial compensation—which has not been enough to stop smallholder farmers from demanding a sustainable intervention. While this policy may provide a temporary solution to pass summer without a major water crisis, a long-term concrete water policy is still lacking; this is also absent from Iraq’s recent Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), a document which serves as an overarching climate change policy for the country. Food security, in this regard, remains highly unstable as long as temperatures keep rising and precipitation decreases every year.
Emerging climate change policies
Since ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2021, the outgoing Iraqi government has been making some progress towards stepping up its response to the impacts of climate change, through new adaptations and mitigations strategies. One motivation has been the country’s desire to access climate finance from the Green Climate Fund which is linked to meeting the conditions set forth by the Paris Agreement. This in turn is partly driven by the need to compensate for the loss of income from low oil prices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Low oil prices have deepened the country’s financial crisis, particularly since more than 90% of government budget revenues had previously been generated by the oil sector. Moreover, Iraq hopes to attract more foreign investment for clean energy that could also boost agriculture and food production, which is also largely dependent on fossil fuels.
With the support of the UNDP, Iraq finalized its previously-mentioned NDC in December 2021, pledging to voluntarily cut 1 to 2% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The plan also includes up to a 15% emissions reduction, provided that there is international technical and financial support, as well national stability in both the political and security sectors. The focus will be on oil, gas, electricity, and transportation, which collectively produce 75% of Iraq’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Developing the NDC will pave the way for up to USD 100 billion worth of investments to help climate-proof the economy over the next 10 years, a major step forward to strengthen food and water security. To further boost Iraq’s climate resilience, the outgoing government has re-established the Ministry of Environment after it had previously been merged with the Ministry of Health in 2015 to cut expenses. Further, the outgoing government has been working on a green paper where a tangible climate change strategy is outlined.
Despite the high-level political support that the outgoing government is lending to climate change impacts, several significant challenges remain for Iraq. These include inadequate institutional capacities for translating adaptation policies into projects on the ground, insufficient data and analysis concerning the impacts of climate change on different sectors and communities, poor monitoring and reporting procedures, as well as inefficient funding strategies. The policies in Iraq’s NDC related to food and water provision emphasize the importance of making these sectors resilient by developing a comprehensive water and land strategy that runs until 2035. Yet, with the challenges surrounding institutional capacity and funding, establishing an operational comprehensive strategy requires international support and joining forces with other local actors. Corruption in allocating and spending budgets and in law enforcement also impedes solutions to protect water resources or stop the exploitation of agricultural for commercial or private usage.
Water and food security at stake
High temperatures and drastic reductions in precipitation are undermining water and food security in Iraq. Most of the agricultural activities take place in the alluvial plain that has significantly shrank over time because of drought. This imminent danger reinforces Iraq’s fragile security context by threatening the livelihoods of millions of Iraqis, many of whom come from farming communities and are being pushed out of necessity towards urban areas. In 2021, water availability was the second lowest in 40 years, which reduced wheat production by 70%.
Water and agriculture were given priority in the government’s new climate policy. For example, the NDC suggested investing in desalinization, reclaiming land to stop desertification, and increasing crop yields by introducing climate-smart agriculture. This includes adapting advanced irrigation systems and encouraging drought-tolerant crop varieties. However, an implementation strategy, timeframe, and funding mechanisms for these policies remain unclear. Iraq is still counting on international support to realize these efforts.
In their NDC and during COP26 (as described earlier), Iraq highlighted that efforts to initiate concrete climate adaption and mitigation action will only be achieved if the international community helps Iraq financially and technically. But with the recent recovery in oil prices, the financial cost may be less of an issue. Technical support in terms of building local capacities and developing operational strategies is what Iraq needs most. More importantly, support for implementation authorities—like regional environmental and agricultural directorates—in tackling governance and management issues needs to expand. Local efforts are often halted due to political conflicts with the central government or suspicions of corruption in law enforcement and spending budgets. For example, local authorities are turning a blind eye to the selling or renting of agricultural and green lands to investors for commercial purposes. Although the law restricts such practices, this re-purposing of agricultural lands is widely practiced in the south.
The role of the private sector
Iraq’s private sector has played an important role, establishing various best practices regarding land restoration and the utilization of smart irrigation systems that may have positive impacts for water and food security. This has particularly been the case in the middle and southern parts of the country. For example, Fadak Farm was established in 2016 by the Shia Endowment Authority, located in the western desert’s Karbala governorate. The 2,000-acre farm depends on artesian wells for drip-irrigating fine date palms species and other climate-resilient trees. The farm started marketing its products in 2021 in three governorates and plans to expand even further. This massive project, which is part of an agricultural initiative launched by the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture, is a good example of how the government can combat management and institutional capacity issues by collaborating with other sectors.
Deep in the desert of Basra, another land-reclamation project has been developed by a private investor from Kuwait. Al Babteen farm, an 8000-acres farm specializing in date palms, seasonal crops, and animal husbandry, utilizes advanced systems to desalinize groundwater for irrigation. The Al Babteen project is a good example of opening the gate to regional collaboration aimed at combatting desertification and saltwater intrusion in southern Iraq. So far, the uptick in delegating agriculture projects to the private sector seems to be a plausible approach through which the Iraqi government can strengthen its climate change response, while keeping direct costs relatively low.
The role of civil society
Another important actor that the Iraqi government should bring into its climate change response is civil society, including climate change and environmental activists. The efforts of Iraqi civil society have generally been crucial in supporting the government on different crises and topics. As governmental authorities suffer from insufficient capacities for a robust climate adaption and mitigation strategy, integrating the growing capacities of civil society could be necessary to fulfilling Iraq’s ambitious NDC.
Over recent years, local environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Humat Dijlah, have been collaborating with international institutions on implementing short-term water and agricultural projects. These NGOs have built knowledge on project implementation and experience reaching affected communities to raise awareness and collect data. They have also received advanced training from international institutions and participated in several workshops. Some local NGOs which do not focus on climate and environmental issues in their mandate have also collaborated with international organizations on smaller scale projects. In order to gain the trust of donors and ensure a positive outcome, these organizations often work in partnership with local experts and academics. Thus, they are usually equipped with expertise in collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data, which are some of the shortcomings that governmental institutions could overcome when joining forces with such NGOs. In addition, Iraqi environmental organizations have extensive experience in monitoring and reporting climate and ecological issues especially those related to water shortages, water quality, and the suffering of vulnerable communities like farmers.
Despite only a few organizations being active on environmental and climate issues, their growing expertise on climate change impacts could be crucial in supporting governmental efforts. The relationship between Iraqi civil society and authorities has been tested many times, especially during the last three years when issues of water, energy, and public services provision triggered grassroots protests. The protests have deepened the mistrust and conflict between governmental actors, some of whom are affiliated with armed groups, and members of civil society who have been advocating for better access to public services, including water. Finding new pathways of working with civil society is an opportunity for the Iraqi government to advance peacebuilding and post-war dialogue, as internal conflicts remain.
Ultimately, even after stepping up efforts on climate change policies, issues of corruption, governance, and insufficient institutional capacity remain significant challenges for Iraqi authorities to overcome. While Iraq has been presenting new policies on climate adaptation and mitigation since as early as 2003 (following the war), these issues have widened the gap between policies and reality on the ground. The role of civil society and other actors like the private sector may very well be critical in enhancing transparency and holding governmental bodies accountable, while achieving climate change response successes.
Maha Yassin is a Junior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute- the Planetary Security Initiative (PSI).