Iraq’s climate conundrum: Oil reliance versus vanishing water

The country could suffer a 20 percent drop in water resources by 2050 with nearly one-third of irrigated land parched.

A man walks near his home in the Chebayesh marsh, Dhi Qar province in Iraq
Agriculture remains the livelihood for most Iraqis, but farmers are increasingly faced with disappearing water supplies [File: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Despite continuing political instability, pressure from Iranian and US influence, and a resurgent ISIL (ISIS) presence, Iraq faces its most significant challenge elsewhere: climate change.

The environment is increasingly becoming an issue for the country, with the future habitability of vast areas now in question.

The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are historically considered the lifelines of Iraq’s fertile land. However, climate change and associated drought are wreaking havoc of unprecedented proportions.

Agriculture remains the livelihood for most people across the country, but Iraqi farmers are increasingly faced with the frightening reality that water supplies are quickly drying up.

The World Bank recently warned Iraq would be hit particularly hard by climate change, with a significant effect on the economy and employment.

The country could suffer a 20 percent drop in water resources by 2050, with nearly one-third of the irrigated land in Iraq left parched.

“Without action, water constraints will lead to large losses across multiple sectors of the economy and come to affect more and more vulnerable people,” said the World Bank’s Saroj Kumar Jha.

George Zittis, associate research scientist on climate change impacts at the Cyprus Institute, said over the last 40 years Iraq and surrounding areas have witnessed accelerated warming of about 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.7 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade.

“These regional warming rates are greater than the global ones,” Zittis told Al Jazeera. “The country has also experienced more frequent and extreme heatwaves. Particularly in the last decade, several temperature records have broken … Hydrological and agricultural droughts are affecting several activities, including agriculture and food production.”

He noted Iraq and the broader Middle East region are considered 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 were losing access to water, food, and electricity because of rising temperatures and record low rainfall.

‘Acute water insecurity’

Zeinab Shuker, assistant professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University, told Al Jazeera other than rising temperature, the building of dams by neighbouring Iran and Turkey to deal with their water shortages was diverting river water from the Tigris and the 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 increasing salinity all add up to a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

“All are contributing to a major water shortage, undermining the agricultural sector, and forcing unplanned migration from rural areas to cities, which is 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 handle climate change currently being employed by governments around the world will likely result in additional average warming of about 2.5C (4.5F) by 2050.

“And this warming will likely exceed 5C [9F] by the year 2100. In other words, even the coolest years of the future will be comparable to the hottest years of the recent past … This will result in heatwaves of unprecedented magnitude and duration,” said Zittis.

The most vulnerable in Iraqi society will face tremendous danger with harvest and income shortages, a lack of drinking water, and the increase of malnutrition and hunger, analysts say.

If the status quo on rising temperatures does not change, Iraq will lose much of its farmland, Shuker noted.

“This will force more and more families and individuals to migrate to the already overcrowded cities … Others will attempt to make the dangerous journey to Europe to join the many climate migrants from across the region,” she said.

Another issue facing Iraqis is the country’s inability to properly refine natural gas, meaning efforts to stay cool through air conditioning is increasingly unaffordable.

“Iraq’s limited ability to separate and process natural gas forces the country to rely heavily on Iranian gas and electricity imports – which have been irregular – to meet its increasing electricity needs,” Shuker said.

“The combination of irregular electricity supplies and high temperatures – which regularly reached above 50C [122F] and are expected to increase even more due to climate change – have forced many Iraqis to depend on privately owned and operated generators for their electricity needs, which is costly for many Iraqi families.”

What can be done?

Facing such a dire future, efforts to drastically reduce hydrocarbon emissions and take measures to adapt to the warming planet are urgently required, analysts say.

Zittis underscored that nations in the Middle East are among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases globally.

“Most of these emissions are related to the energy production sector. Therefore, for mitigating global and regional warming, these emissions need to be reduced substantially within the following decades. A transition to renewable energy sources appears to be the coherent solution,” said Zittis.

Scientific research will play a key role in minimising the dangers posed by climate change, however, Iraq and other MENA nations are far behind in such planning, Zittis noted.

“Such adaptation plans require climate datasets of high accuracy, interdisciplinary approaches, and collaborative research, currently lacking from the region,” he said.

Some measures required to reduce the effects of global warming, including optimising water resource management and agricultural practices, securing energy access through renewables, improving the energy efficiency of buildings, and “developing early warning and forecasting systems for extreme weather preparedness”, said Zittis.

Iraq’s current government, so far, has yet to take the necessary steps.

“The political leaders don’t have a clear long-term policy in place,” said Shuker, highlighting that power struggles among various political factions do not bode well for climate action.

“Resources from the rentier economy have helped fund many of the operations of these centres of power. One can even argue that a big part of their survival depends on their access to oil revenue. As a result, even if there is a state capacity that can tackle something as complicated as climate change, there is a limited political will to do so.”

Source: Al Jazeera