1 December 2021; Baghdad – As Iraq becomes a Party to the Paris Agreement, the United Nations in Iraq is calling for solidarity with and support to people in Iraq in their efforts to confront climate change.
Traditionally known as “the land between two rivers” or Mesopotamia, lush and fertile, Iraq is increasingly experiencing extreme climate events, compounding environmental fragility and water scarcity. The river basin has seen the second lowest rainfall in 40 years, with effects being felt across the region. With dams being built in neighbouring countries, the water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq has dropped by 29% and 73% respectively. The harsh impact of climate change threatens food security, the loss of livelihoods and progress on gender equality. It poses a threat to the full enjoyment of human rights, in particular for groups and persons in the most vulnerable situations. The impact of climate change also contributes to driving internal displacement and precarious migration. Women, children and young people are bearing the brunt in this worsening situation.
Following COP26 and furthering its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Iraq is taking steps to shift towards a greener economy, including by bolstering investment in natural gases and allocating 12 gigawatts of renewable energy. The Government of Iraq, with UNDP support, finalised its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) report that addresses mitigation and climate change adaptation. Under the NDC — the umbrella policy for climate change work in the country — Iraq will voluntarily cut 1-2% CO2-equivalent emissions from industry, and open a window for US$100 billion investment in green economy, from both the private and public sectors over the next 10 years. At COP26, Iraq focused on the NDC to promote sustainable development and ensure environmental integrity and transparency.
Such developments are positive, but the world’s continued support is still needed. For the coming 2021-22 crop season, drier conditions are again foreseen for most of the region, consistent with the patterns of* La Niña*. The Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture estimated that wheat and barley production in northern parts of the country — which are mainly rainfall dependent — could be 70% lower. In October 2021, in line with these predictions, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to reduce the annual areas for planting by 50%, in consultation with the Ministry of Water Resources.
The destruction of households and livelihoods, and the loss of livestock and crops due to water scarcity, have become a reality for those communities that are the hardest hit by climate change. Limited access to markets due to intermittent movement restrictions imposed in relation to COVID-19, higher fodder and equipment prices since the 18% devaluation of the Iraqi dinar, and low rainfall are also affecting livestock farmers due to reduced grazing areas and availability of fodder crops.
In the northern governorates of Ninewa and Salah al-Din, which are the worst-affected by lack of rainfall, WFP’s analysis identifies that the levels of insufficient food consumption and the use of negative coping strategies such as borrowing money or eating less food among households, are almost double the national average. The two governorates are home to 2.5 million people who returned home after years of displacement: constituting more than half the returnees in Iraq.
A recent study by IOM highlights the climate-induced migration of rural, agricultural populations to the southern city of Basra in search of other work opportunities. Further challenges are facing those migrating in the context of climate change and trying to settle into complex new environments with potentially limited financial and social capital, which may impact their ability to access services and claim their rights. The southern cities continue to struggle with economic security and governance and may not be well prepared to absorb influxes of migrants.
A population analysis report by UNFPA shows that ongoing migration has led to an imbalanced population distribution with nearly 70% of people living in urban areas, which negatively affects the agricultural development. Women and girls are expected to travel longer distances to collect water, exposing them to higher risks of gender-based violence. The loss of livelihoods can lead to increases in child marriage and teenage pregnancies, and disputes between communities. According to UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Risk Index, children and young people are at medium-high climate risk in Iraq, with groups in vulnerable situations and certain areas of the country at higher risk.
Iraq has the highest annual population growth rate in the region at 2.8% and a working-age population of 57%. Now is the time for the international community to support Iraq in harnessing its potential for sustainable growth, advancing progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, tackling the climate crisis, upholding its human rights obligations to prevent the foreseeable adverse effects of climate change — and to adapt to those that are already happening – on all of Iraq’s diverse communities, and providing a decent life for its population.
Both before and following COP26, the UN is supporting Iraq in mitigating and adapting to climate change, through the design of sustainable projects that focus on livelihoods creation and medium and long-term development, that promote investments in efficient water and wastewater infrastructure, irrigation and the management of water consumption, as well as the use of renewable energy such as solar power. The UN is also working with the government on training, skills development and strengthening capacity to tackle climate change. Advocacy efforts are raising public awareness on the topics of water consumption and sustainable water management.
Yet the country’s economic situation remains unstable. For communities in vulnerable situations, a vast majority of whom rely on agriculture, fishing and livestock to subsist, climate change is one more layer of stress they cannot afford to bear alone.
Galvanized by the Paris Agreement, the government and humanitarian-development community need to respond now and in collaboration with public and private partners, civil society, women, youth, migrants, displaced people and affected communities, to invest in solutions and improve prospects for long-term food security, prevent the magnification of socioeconomic challenges, and by using a human rights-based approach, ensure that the impact of climate change on people in Iraq, particularly those in the most vulnerable situations, can be cushioned. We must support the country to continue to take action to manage its own natural resources, starting with water, investment in technological innovation such as the use of renewable energy and allocating sufficient resources to sustainable solutions.
Irena Vojáčková-Sollorano, UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq
Dr Salah ElHajjHassan, FAO Representative, Iraq
George Gigauri, IOM Chief of Mission, Iraq
Danielle Bell, Representative, OHCHR, Iraq
Zena Ali Ahmad, UNDP Resident Representative, Iraq
Dr Rita Columbia, UNFPA Representative, Iraq
Sheema Sen Gupta, UNICEF Representative, Iraq
Ally-Raza Qureshi, WFP Representative, Iraq