The Deep Roots of Iraq’s Climate Crisis. By Zaineb Shuker *
This report is the first in “Living the Climate Emergency: Lessons from Iraq,” a new Century International project exploring how policymakers and researchers can draw on the case of Iraq and its neighbors to translate into action the growing consensus that the climate crisis is already here. Century’s Climate Emergency project will connect field researchers, policymakers, and a wider audience through roundtables, public events, podcasts, and reports. Future research in this project will place today’s crisis in a historical context; map the contours and human impact of climate change in Iraq and its neighborhood; and finally, drawing on the lessons of the extreme case in Iraq, make projections about the future and propose solutions.
Military strategists sometimes talk about “draining the swamp” to quash an insurgency. When Saddam Hussein faced an insurrection in southern Iraq in the early 1990s, he took the idea literally, draining thousands of square miles of Iraqi marshland to deny Shia rebels a base of operations and to retaliate against anyone connected to them. The brutal campaign destroyed an ancient way of life and caused severe damage to a globally significant ecosystem.
Three decades later, just as the marshlands are poised to recover, they have begun to dry up again. This time, the causes are more indirect: a multiyear drought, upstream diversions, and inefficient or crumbling agricultural infrastructure. Climate change looms above all these problems—and contributes to or amplifies each through direct or indirect channels.1 Hotter temperatures evaporate water faster, disasters like droughts become more extreme, the competition for resources (like the water in upstream reservoirs) becomes more vicious, and everything that goes wrong becomes more expensive to fix.
The plight of the marshes at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates is a microcosm of the plight of Iraq, which has been described as the fifth-most vulnerable country, in terms of climate change, in the world.2 Peel back the headline emergencies—heat and drought—and you’ll discover a morass of interrelated and mutually aggravating problems that are firmly rooted in decades of structural limitations, de-prioritization of the environment, and poor governance. For decades, Iraq’s environment and ecosystems have been the subject of myriad threats, whether conflict, short-sighted economic policies, or limited institutional capacity. These problems have accumulated over the years to place Iraq in a highly environmentally vulnerable position.3
Identifying the right climate policy levers in Iraq—both to mitigate the effects of climate change and to fulfill Iraq’s responsibilities toward the regional and global effort to limit climate change—requires a thorough understanding of the country’s recent history and how it relates to the environment. This report launches an open-ended Century International research initiative focused on climate change.
A Different Kind of Climate Change Analysis
As in Iraq, so too the region. All of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is deeply vulnerable to climate change. Some of this vulnerability is geographical accident—semiarid and arid regions suffer more directly from drought, and regions that are already among the hottest in the world experience the most extreme new heatwaves. But a much bigger reason for the precarious climate situation in the Middle East is its unique history of colonization, international intervention, and poor homegrown governance.
Some of the countries in the MENA region have very carbon-intensive economies—meaning that they rank among the highest globally in per capita emissions. Still, the region is responsible, overall, for only about 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.4 Yet it is suffering disproportionately because of global climate change, which is a threat multiplier in an already fragile region.
Century International’s climate change project outlines three basic analytical axes that are fundamental to understanding Iraq’s climate crisis and responding to it. These analytical axes are also useful in the MENA region more broadly.
The first is that the economic, social, and political context matters. Climate change in Iraq cannot be cordoned off from foreign intervention, an oil-dependent economy, broken institutions, corruption, authoritarianism, and poor governance. This report, the first in the project, aims to provide an overview of the larger economic, social, and political context shaping Iraq’s climate crisis. Climate change in Iraq must be demystified. It is not an abstract future threat; it is a measurable process that is already dragging down the country. Further, it is not just an environmental crisis, but also a social crisis—and it is happening today. A subsequent report in this project will examine the impact of climate and environmental degradation on the ground, and how these conditions impact the daily lives of Iraqis.
The second is that Iraq does not exist in a vacuum. The MENA region as a collective is highly vulnerable to climate conditions, especially Iraq’s neighbors. As a result, to further understand what increases the vulnerability in Iraq, the second part of this project will look at Iraq’s neighbors and their existing climate crisis, as well as some of the successful steps taken by other rentier economies and why Iraq remains far behind.
The third analytical axis is an examination of the limitations on true and effective responses to the climate crisis by the state. While there are indications that Iraqi leadership is aware of the issue and willing to address it—ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2021, for example—state mitigation remains wishful thinking without the right tools and resources. This will be the topic of the third report.
With these analytical axes in place, policy becomes a matter of sequencing and priorities. Iraq, however, is still far from such a reality. And the need for change could not be more urgent.
Drought, Dust, and Heat
According to some studies, Iraq is heating twice as fast as the global average.5 These trends are expected to worsen over time. Days where temperatures hit 120 degrees will go from around fourteen per year to more than forty over the next two decades, according to a report by the European Union Institute of Security Studies. Baghdad is already becoming intolerably hot, and is expected to continue to bear the worst of the increased heat because of its limited green spaces, uncontrolled urban development, and dysfunctional housing designs.6
Severe heat will be devastating. Iraq is already one of the countries most exposed to high heatwave severity, with 6 percent of children exposed to extremely high temperatures; UNICEF estimates that by 2050, every child in Iraq will be exposed to high heatwave severity. Children suffer disproportionately from such heat exposure because they don’t regulate body temperature as well as adults. As UNICEF puts it: “The more heatwaves children are exposed to, the greater the chance of health problems, including chronic respiratory conditions, asthma, and cardiovascular diseases. Babies and young children are at the greatest risk of heat-related mortality. Heatwaves can also affect children’s environments, their safety, nutrition, and access to water, and their education and future livelihood.”7
The increase in temperature has a domino effect on other weather patterns, and resource quantity and quality. Water evaporates more quickly. Iraq is already one of the top twenty countries for water insecurity as a result of water mismanagement, outdated infrastructure and irrigation methods, and the inability of the Iraqi government to negotiate with its neighbors over water share and access. As Turkey is struggling with its own water shortage, Iraq’s northwestern neighbor has invested in several dam projects, of which the massive Ilisu Dam on the Tigris is the best known. These projects have decreased water levels in Iraq, and the calls from Iraqi officials to officials in upstream countries, including Turkey and Iran, often lead to no meaningful outcome.8
Increased strain on the water supply is already showing. By 2022, some 39 percent of Iraq’s arable land territory had already been desertified.
There’s nothing new about Iraq’s cross-border water issues—since the 1960s, unilateral irrigation plans have altered the rivers’ flows. Iraqi officials have long maintained that the dams Turkey built on rivers are causing a decline in water levels and severe droughts in Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkey blames Iraq’s poor management and outdated irrigation systems for the latter’s shortages. Whatever the cause of Iraq’s water shortages, it is certain that more rapid evaporation and more extreme droughts will only make this long-standing problem worse. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that the gap between the water demand and supply in Iraq could increase from 5 billion cubic meters to 11 billion cubic meters by 2035.9
Increased strain on the water supply is already showing. By 2022, some 39 percent of Iraq’s arable land territory had already been desertified.10 An additional 54 percent of arable land is now at risk of imminent desertification.11 The 2020–21 rainy season was the second driest in the last forty years. This led to the reduction of water flow in the Tigris by 29 percent and in the Euphrates by 73 percent.12 In 2022, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources warned that the country’s water reserves had halved since the previous year.13
The decline in water levels has left roughly three out of five children in Iraq with no access to safely managed water services, and less than half of all schools in the country have basic access to water. If no action is taken, water shortage will affect over 2 million children and their families by 2030.14 While the exact impact of water shortage on Iraqi children has not been fully investigated, data from other countries shows that children who live in water-scarce areas may be more likely to live in poverty or experience domestic violence in the family. And children without secure access to water are more likely to experience stunted growth, anemia, and cognitive deficits.15
Water shortages in Iraq have also contributed to more frequent and intense sand and dust storms. Sand storms are nothing new in Iraq, but meteorologists have documented a marked increase in their number and intensity in the past twenty years.16 The storms are devastating: In April 2022, a storm put 5,000 people in hospitals, mostly because of aggravated respiratory problems, and killed at least one person.17 A month later, another storm sent 4,000 people to the hospital and made Baghdad one of the most polluted cities in the world, with around sixty tons of sand covering the city in one day.
Sand and dust storms cause other health problems, as well. According to the World Meteorological Organization, a UN agency, sand and dust storms increase the incidence of diseases such as asthma and pneumonia, and can lead to cardiac problems. The dust also increases the spread of viruses, bacteria, pesticides, and other toxins, straining Iraq’s overtaxed health care infrastructure.18
Sand and dust storms also have a major impact on the economy—they shut down oil refineries, halt transportation of oil products, shut down schools, and ground flights.19
FIRE CREWS WORK TO EXTINGUISH A BURNING OIL WELL ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF QAYYARAH ON DECEMBER 23, 2016. THE ISLAMIC STATE HAD SET THE WELLS ABLAZE DURING ITS RETREAT. SOURCE: CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES
Water scarcity is also increasingly forcing the internal displacement of individuals and families. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix found that, as of March 15, 2023, more than 12,000 families—some 73,000 individuals—had been displaced across ten governorates in central and southern parts of Iraq as a result of climate change and drought. The majority of these families (76 percent) have been displaced into urban centers.20
The number of internally displaced Iraqis in the entire country is surely much higher. A 2021 study by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that in drought-impacted areas, one in fifteen households had a family member who had been forced to migrate in search of work.21
The situation will get worse. According to recent reports by the IOM, climate change and environmental degradation led to the displacement of more than 55,000 people—about 13 percent of the population—in central and southern Iraq between January 2016 and October 2022.22 All signs point to these statistics growing more extreme in the future.
These conditions are affecting rural communities across Iraq, especially in the central and southern parts of the country. Water quantity and quality are worse in these areas, on the lower reaches of Iraq’s two main rivers, where ill effects accumulate from unregulated upstream water use and the dumping of toxic agricultural and industrial waste. Farmers experience the most immediate impact of this crisis, especially in the absence of advanced modern irrigation methods. Desertification and water shortages have caused declines in the amount of available arable land and, in turn, in overall production. For example, in al-Alam district of Salahaddin governorate, annual cereal production declined from 103,000 tons in 2019 to 53,000 tons in 2021.23
The water crisis also affects farmers’ ability to raise healthy animals. Many are forced to sell their livestock on the cheap when they can no longer maintain them.
Despite these difficulties, abandoning the farm is usually a last resort. Many farming families have lived on their land for generations and have wide networks and deep knowledge about agriculture. But when a family is out of options, it will send its young men to urban centers in search of better economic opportunities. Women are left to tend what remains of the land and the animals. The full physical and psychological costs of these migration patterns in Iraq are not fully understood, but research in other countries shows that such displacement of men, and the increasing responsibilities of women in an increasingly hostile environment, are associated with major health risks.24
More recent trends, however, show that rather than seasonal migration, whole families are now being forced to relocate to urban communities in search of better living conditions.25 This is a kind of downward mobility for the migrants. Their skills are poorly matched to the labor market, social services are limited, and they languish in informal settlements and face discrimination for being outsiders. While data is limited, a 2021 report by the International Labour Organization and other UN agencies found that “those who do work are often pushed into precarious employment, including informal employment, and for many, their income from their livelihoods is largely insufficient to enable them to meet their basic needs.”26
Whole families are now being forced to relocate to urban communities in search of better living conditions.
When families decide to return to their rural communities, they often either cannot return to their original economic practices or their productivity is significantly reduced, which increases the odds of being displaced again. In other words, water shortage is creating a domino effect of long-term social, political, and economic consequences that are not fully understood.27
These different forms of environmental degradation are leading to several social and political crises. But the economic impact may be the most devastating.
The agricultural sector in Iraq, which is the biggest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) after the oil sector, employs around 20 percent of the population.28 As thousands of farmers are forced to abandon their land each year, they add additional pressure on the country’s public sector. The newly displaced are pushed to enter the informal and illegal economy—which is less efficient, untaxed, and does not contribute to the country’s economic development. Overall, the World Bank states that a 20 percent decrease in Iraq’s water supply could reduce demand for agricultural labor by nearly 12 percent, and reduce the country’s GDP by about $6.6 billion, around 3 percent.29 (Later reports in this series will document the profound economic toll of climate change in Iraq in more detail.)
Decades in the Making
Iraq’s descent into climate crisis began long before climate change was a household word. Several milestones stand out.
The first was the Gulf War of 1991. The environmental devastation that the war inflicted on Kuwait is better known. Retreating Iraqi forces burned more than 700 oil wells, spilling 60 million barrels of oil in the process.30 While these events did not directly affect Iraq, the indirect impact of the Gulf War set the scene for what was to come.
The destruction of Iraq’s marshlands came next. In the aftermath of the Iraqi army retreat from Kuwait, Shia and Kurdish rebels in southern and northern Iraq, respectively, began resisting Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had long marginalized them. The Kurdish rebels received assistance from the United States and generally fared better, with Iraqi Kurdistan enjoying some autonomy even before Saddam was deposed. Iraqi Shia rebels were less lucky. Saddam’s regime launched a brutal campaign against them, and drained the southern marshes where many of them lived, under the pretense of converting the territories to irrigated farmland.31
Before its destruction, the marshlands—which were sometimes referred to as the Garden of Eden—were home to millions of birds and a flyway for millions more migrating between Siberia and Africa. The last complete survey that was done in the 1970s found that the area had at least eighty bird species, many of which were rare or close to extinction, such as the marbled teal and the Basra reed warbler. The marshland also played a very important role as a natural filter for waste and pollutants carried downstream by the Tigris and Euphrates before reaching the Gulf.32
But by the early 1990s, 90 percent of the marshes were gone. The food chain collapsed. Key fungi and algae disappeared, fish died, birds disappeared, and the shrubs on which domestic animals forage were depleted.33
The human cost was, unsurprisingly, devastating. The Marsh Arabs, also called the Ma’dan, are inheritors of one of the oldest living cultures. Their lifestyle of fishing, rice cultivation, and buffalo breeding is deeply connected to the environment and the land. They build their homes using swamp reeds. As Saddam crushed the insurgency and drained the wetlands, those Ma’dan that survived had few options: rebuild destroyed villages in a degraded landscape, accept resettlement somewhere else in Iraq, or escape to Iran. The area was depopulated: In 1991, there were some 250,000 Ma’dan in the marshes. By 2003, an estimated 10,000 remained.34 Some 100–200,000 Marsh Arabs were internally displaced.35
A second main outcome of the Gulf War was the near destruction of Iraq’s economy. Bombing by the U.S.-led coalition dealt the first blow. Research has shown that those bombing campaigns were calculated to cause maximum economic and psychological damage by targeting Iraq’s infrastructure. One target was electricity infrastructure; coalition bombing reduced Iraq’s electrical output to around 4 percent of its prewar output. Four months after the war ended, Iraq was producing about as much electricity as it had in 1920.36
The West’s severe economic sanctions finished what the bombing started. Elites connected to Saddam certainly didn’t enjoy the sanctions, but it was the Iraqi people who suffered most. The country’s GDP shrank by more than two-thirds.37 Shortages caused food prices to spiral. Infrastructure, already strained by the Iran–Iraq War and Gulf War bombing, further decayed—in irrigation, water purification, sewage treatment, and even oil and gas extraction. And without access to international financing or assistance, the government could not fix the broken infrastructure, let alone update it. The country’s outdated infrastructure would play a significant role in worsening Iraq’s climate and pollution crisis after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.38
The third and arguably the most significant outcome of the Gulf War was the devastation of the country’s different institutions and bureaucratic capacity. A paranoid and weakened Saddam found himself increasingly isolated from the international community. He had maintained strength and stability in the 1970s as part of an oil-for-obedience social contract, and in the 1980s by mobilizing group solidarity against a mutual outsider threat (Iran). But now, he had limited resources to maintain the existing social contract between state and citizens, and the population was increasingly alienated. His new strategy was to strengthen the role of traditional authority, such as tribal groups. In tandem, he moved to minimize what few checks and balances remained on his authority, to give further freedom for his inner circle to engage in state-sanctioned corruption. In short, power became even more concentrated during this period, and poor governance systems became more deeply entrenched.
These same practices set the stage for the power vacuum that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. They also limited the state’s capacity to respond to and address climate-related threats.
AN IRAQI WOMAN WALKS WITH HER CHILDREN DURING A SANDSTORM IN APRIL 2008 IN BAGHDAD. SOURCE: WATHIQ KHUZAIE/GETTY IMAGES
A Toxic Invasion
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 wasn’t just a violation of international law based on spurious evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.39 It was also an environmental disaster.
The invasion increased Iraq’s environmental vulnerability directly and indirectly. The obvious consequences for the environment came in the form of toxic waste disposed of carelessly, as well as the impact of the weapons used during the war on health and ecology.
But the invasion also did indirect environmental damage. The United States supported and elevated political opposition to leadership positions while also building a system of governing that revolved around sectarian tensions and contested identity. At the same time, the U.S. occupation barred the Ba’ath party, creating a power vacuum and lowering the capacity of bureaucratic institutions. The United States also disbanded the military, alienating hundreds of thousands of trained men with few dignified employment alternatives. This created the perfect conditions for the rise of political turmoil, insurgency, and terrorist organizations. All of these American decisions enfeebled Iraqi institutions, making them less capable of responding to long-standing environmental problems in the country, let alone more emergent concerns.
The retreating Iraqi army burned oil wells, as it had in the Gulf War. But far fewer wells were set on fire than in Kuwait in 1991, and they were extinguished much more quickly.40 However, the invasion left a devastating amount of other types of war pollution. A 2010 investigation by The Sunday Times found that the U.S. military had generated and abandoned approximately 11 million pounds of toxic waste in Iraq.41 This waste included engine and aviation fuel, batteries, canisters of corrosive liquids, and compressed gas cylinders, many of which were left by the U.S. military in open areas or near irrigation sources rather than being sent back to the United States. Such toxic waste can contaminate freshwater resources and degrade agricultural land. Iraq depends heavily on groundwater and river water, and with its outdated infrastructure to spot and address these contaminated locations, the environmental and health risks have been countless.
An epidemiologist who examined health consequences in Fallujah found that the area had “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”
A 2005 UN report found that Iraq had several thousand contaminated sites littered around the country, “resulting from a combination of general industrial activities, military activities, post-conflict damage, and looting. Many of the sites are derelict and open to public access. They contain substantial quantities of hazardous waste and present a threat to human health and the environment.”42 This pollution contaminated the country’s main water sources. Such pollution tends to have a long-term impact, especially when there is little or no strategy for clean-up. For example, according to Iraqi officials, cancer rates have increased from 40 out of 100,000 people before the Gulf War, to 800 out of 100,000 people by 1995, to a shocking 1,600 out of 100,000 people by 2005.43 In locations where the bombing was the heaviest, the population experienced other health risks, such as birth defects and miscarriages. An epidemiologist who examined health consequences in Fallujah found that the area had “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”44
And here, as well, is where Iraq’s other institutional limitations come into play. Iraq’s civil war started around 2006, which made it hard—for the struggling government, for international partners, and for research teams—to properly access, assess, and address pollution hot spots.45 A 2020 study of the country’s rivers found elevated water pollution with contamination from heavy metals such as nickel, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, copper, lead, and zinc.46
A Power Vacuum
With the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States, between 2003 and 2007, undertook several steps in an attempt to “democratize” the country. These included building new parties, supporting civil society organizations, recruiting and training new military forces, and drafting new laws. On paper, all of these steps sound good—moving the country toward a more democratic political system is a worthy goal. The reality, however, was different. Saddam’s brutal regime had long ago dismantled Iraq’s political scene and civil society, leaving behind a generation that mistrusted political parties and didn’t have the tools to effectively organize toward democratic participation. Further, bureaucratic and institutional structures that were already weakened by Saddam were further gutted by American-led de-Ba’athification. The result was a hollowed-out state with limited capacity or long-term strategies to address the country’s many crises, environmental or otherwise.
The power vacuum in the country further undermined the ability of the state to undo years of environmental neglect and destruction, and it added new sources of threats to the environment and the population. The rise of the Islamic State was one such threat. Between 2012 and 2017, tensions rose between the Sunni population of Iraq and the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Islamic State exploited the moment to expand into Syria and began marching across Iraq. The group captured Fallujah in December 2013; by June 2014, it had taken control of a third of the country.
The Islamic State’s blood-soaked regime didn’t last long. The Iraqi army and the irregular Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) mounted a successful counteroffensive, and by December 2017 the extremist group had lost 95 percent of its territory. Its environmental damage, however, was long-lasting. During the peak of its power, the Islamic State took control of Alas and Ajeel oil fields in the Hamrin Mountains, as well as the Qayyarah oil field and the Baiji oil refinery.47 The latter was the nation’s largest, producing over a third of Iraq’s domestic oil production. Oil refineries in Iraq are already at high risk due to poor governance and outdated infrastructure. But the Islamic State demonstrated even less care for safety than previous operators. Then, when its power started diminishing, the Islamic State set fire to oil refineries and wells. The group torched a sulfur plant north of Qayyarah, sending 35,000 tons of the toxic substance into the air.48 During their retreat from Baiji, they destroyed the facility by setting fire to its oil wells and equipment. These fires released a massive amount of toxic waste and deposited soot over the nearby towns and the surrounding areas. Even after firefighters got the fires under control, burning oil slicks still flowed from oil wells, and the lakes in the area were filled with solidified crude oil, leaving behind a contaminated landscape.49
What was not destroyed by the Islamic State was targeted by those fighting it.50 The U.S.-led coalition bombed oil pipelines and trucks, to deprive the Islamic State of its source of income. The resulting smoke plumes from the wells obscured the sun in Mosul for months, in what later came to be known as the “Daesh Winter.” (Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.)
Burning oil wells not only pollute the air but also degrade the soil and water and, as a result, people’s livelihoods. The Washington Post documented the health and environmental impact of the Islamic State retreat. Many of the 100,000 or so people living in Qayyarah and its surrounding villages have experienced health risks such as skin rashes and severe bronchitis. Some have even died from suffocation. Farmers lost their livestock and could barely grow any food; what products were able to eke out were unsellable since buyers feared they were contaminated.51
The true impact of the Islamic State retreat is still not fully understood. However, a 2018 United Nations Environment Programme report found that land and waterways were still contaminated with harmful chemicals, from oil spills to mustard gas residue.52 And farmers are forced to continue to farm and care for livestock on lands visibly contaminated with oil.
It’s easy to see how climate change can push a land and people in such a precarious state over the edge—to migration or other desperate measures.
IRAQI WOMEN PUNT IN THE MARSHES IN FEBRUARY 2005, SOUTH OF THE CITY OF AMMARAH. SOURCE: GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD/GETTY IMAGES
The Stable Disaster
With the defeat of the Islamic State, the country entered a period of overall relative political and economic stability. The new stage of the Iraqi story is where the interaction between oil dependency, the state, and hybrid actors has compounded the country’s vulnerability to the climate crisis. For the past decade, oil revenues have accounted for around 99 percent of all exports, 85 percent of the country’s budget, and 42 percent of GDP.53 This massive amount of wealth filters through the fractured state system, maintaining the ethnic and sectarian divisions of power. It also supports the various hybrid actors, like the PMU, who simultaneously exist inside and outside the state.
The resource curse of oil dependency has created and interacted with underlying structural conditions, such as weak institutions and bad policy decisions. Oil is pumped continuously, and there are no checks on the flows of massive wealth entering the country. State officials easily pocket oil wealth, making Iraq one of the twenty-five most corrupt states in the world.54 While estimates differ, some reports find that between $150 and $300 billion has been lost to corruption in Iraq since 2003.55
These conditions further weaken the capacity of the state to address the complex ecological and climate degradation crisis. With money flowing to the elite, those at the summit of the state’s pernicious power structures have little interest in diversifying away from the oil sector. The problem, then, is not simply that Iraq is an oil-rich country, but that oil is the primary source of revenue for the state. Thus, political actors shy away from any activities that might jeopardize the oil sector, since there are few alternatives.
In terms of Iraq’s participation in the global effort to slow climate change, it would obviously be beneficial for the country to have a more diversified economy so that it could transition out of petrochemicals. About three-quarters of Iraq’s emissions are attributed to the electricity, oil, gas operations, and transport sectors. These carbon emissions have more than doubled over the last decade alone, with no clear strategies from the state on countering their impact. The country has one of the highest levels of carbon intensity compared to its regional and income peers.56 And Iraq flares around 17 billion cubic meters of gas per year, at a cost of about $8 billion. This gas is a byproduct of oil refinement; its flaring is not only an ecological tragedy but also a massive economic waste: almost 60 percent of the country’s power plants are gas-powered, and could make use of the flared gas to address the country’s electricity shortage if it was instead captured and processed.57
But even more dangerous for Iraq’s domestic efforts to respond to climate change is that complete oil dependency tends to produce weak state institutions incapable of responding to most crises, whether related to climate or otherwise. Iraq is experiencing political, economic, social, and environmental threats, and the state, in its fragmented condition, lacks the ability to respond.
A Costly Addiction
Oil wealth has made Iraq’s state rot “sustainable.” Institutional weakness, short-term thinking by hybrid actors within the state, and the continuous allocation of positions across the state apparatus based on sectarian and ethnic identities (and rarely based on knowledge or experience)—all are sustained by oil wealth.
Iraq’s oil dependency also makes it much more difficult to transition into a lower-carbon economy—a transition that will be necessary for every country in the world, if not because of regulation then, eventually, out of economic necessity. Iraq has invested very little in developing its other sectors, and by extension, the country is not prepared to move away from hydrocarbons to protect itself from the possible decline in the demand for and the revenues of oil production. If oil revenues decline as the population increases, it’s easy to imagine that the public sector in Iraq will shrink. The public sector employs far more Iraqis than the private sector, so such a chain of events could lead to rising unemployment—in a country where some 35 percent of the youth are already unemployed.58
State officials easily pocket oil wealth. Between $150 and $300 billion has been lost to corruption in Iraq since 2003.
Iraq is also not prepared to address the harmful impact of oil dependency on the environment and the possibility that worsening climate conditions will make the process of extracting and exporting oil challenging.
It is little wonder, given Iraq’s oil dependency, that the state has difficulty communicating about climate change, identifying key climate-related problems, and starting or finishing projects that can evaluate or address some of the long-term consequences of conflict on the environment.59
The eventual costs of Iraq’s extractives addiction are increasing daily. The climate crisis does not depend on one country’s behavior, nor can it be solved if only one country takes action. However, countries that can control their emissions, invest in tools to address their changing environment, and build mitigation strategies have a better chance of being spared the worst. As a result, Iraq’s vulnerability is the combined result of not only its oil dependency but also its inability to mitigate the impact of that dependency.
The effect of all these conditions is still not fully understood, since data collection and evaluation, as well as state transparency, are a challenge in Iraq. What is clear is that the climate situation in Iraq is dire, and it cannot be remedied in isolation. Its causes are structural. A successful Iraqi climate policy will have to consider many treacherous legacies: of Saddam; of the 2003 invasion and occupation; of the Islamic State and institutional fragility; of entrenched ethno-sectarianism; of corruption; and of oil dependency. A failure to properly address the climate crisis could spawn problems as complex and far-reaching as these contributing factors.
Lessons for the Region
After years of stalling and debate, key constituencies now acknowledge the dangers of climate change and environmental disaster. The emergency is coming to the whole world, but at different speeds. It has already struck Iraq. Now that we recognize the problem, it’s time to get more precise about how we define the climate crisis and all the interrelated crises connected to it—in agriculture, water supply, air quality, and so much more. Clear definitions of the problem, focused on human impacts and human causes, clear the way toward viable responses, which also focus on human agency—remediations, adaptation, sometimes even reversals and solutions.
Climate change and environmental degradation impact the MENA region in general, making it one of the most vulnerable in the world. However, not all MENA countries are equal in terms of contribution to worsening climate conditions or in their ability to respond to these threats. Oil-rich countries contribute disproportionately to worsening the climate, yet do not produce anywhere near the amount of total emissions produced by some of the major global offenders.60 And countries with existing weaknesses, such as conflict and violence, are less likely to be able to mitigate the impact of worsening climate conditions.
Countries like Iraq are thus unique in their combined vulnerability. Yet even as Iraq faces increased risk, research remains limited on the topic, both because data is limited data and because other immediate threats in the country—such as the rise and fall of the Islamic State—have captured attention and resources that might instead go to climate change.
Another problem is that the research on climate change in Iraq has, so far, tended to be policy-oriented. While finding solutions is necessary, these solutions are more effective when they are based on social science research and analysis that examines, in depth, the roots of problems.61 In many ways, to address environmental degradation in Iraq, one must start with the limitation of Iraq’s economic sector and poor governance, which are the country’s fundamental weaknesses. And since these are long-term problems that will take generations before they can be addressed—if they can be addressed—the question remains: How can one introduce effective mitigation tools in dysfunctional structures?
Iraq is unique because neither the country nor the region can wait for long-term structural answers. Yet even short-term responses are almost out of reach. But however daunting, it is a puzzle that must be solved.
This report provides an overview of the problem at hand in Iraq. The next stage of this analysis is to unpack structural limitations that have shaped Iraq’s climate and environmental crises by looking at the interaction between oil dependency, corruption, fragmented power, and environmental degradation, as well as identifying the detailed mechanics of how climate change is playing out in different sectors and locales in Iraq. The final stage of this analysis will be to identify clear solutions and mitigation tools that are applicable to Iraq and allow solutions to be tested in extreme situations.
Climate change is a highly networked catastrophe—in Iraq and the Middle East as much, if not more so, than anywhere else. This presents a particular challenge to both researchers and policymakers. No single country can pause climate change: if Iraq stopped pumping oil and eliminated emissions tomorrow, it would still suffer from global temperature increases, not to mention a variety of other types of local environmental degradation. Responding to the effects of climate change is equally complex.
But with this project’s analytical axes in mind, the shapes of effective responses begin to emerge. Technological tools will be important, to alleviate some of the immediate pressure of climate change. However, Iraq’s climate solutions will be about governance and economics as much as they are about technology and emissions agreements. Creating a stable and democratic country with a diverse economy and robust institutions is the best long-term path to climate resiliency.
This report is part of “Living the Climate Emergency: Lessons from Iraq,” a Century International project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.
HEADER IMAGE: A DUST STORM BELLOWS ACROSS THE WESTERN DESERT OF IRAQ IN APRIL 2005. SAND AND DUST STORMS HAVE BECOME MORE FREQUENT AND DEVASTATING IN RECENT YEARS. SOURCE: SHANNON ARLEDGE/USMC VIA GETTY IMAGES
- Wil Crisp, “After Comeback, Southern Iraq’s Marshes Are Now Drying Up,” Yale Environment 360, January 10, 2023, https://e360.yale.edu/features/iraq-marshes-drought-climate-change#:~:text=But%20in%20the%20early%201990s,water%20levels%20by%2090%20percent.
- “Migration, Environment, and Climate Change in Iraq,” International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2022, https://iraq.un.org/en/194355-migration-environment-and-climate-change-iraq.
- Clémentine Lienard, “Mitigating Climate Change in the MENA: Shifting to a New Paradigm,” Brussels International Center, April 28, 2022, https://www.bic-rhr.com/research/mitigating-climate-change-mena-shifting-new-paradigm.
- Saleem Salman et al., “Long-Term Trends in Daily Temperature Extremes in Iraq,” Atmospheric Research198 (2017): 97–107.
- Florence Gaub and Clémentine Lienard, “Arab Climate Futures,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, 2021, https://www.iss.europa.eu/content/arab-climate-futures. See also Gabriel Chaim, “Baghdad Heat Is World’s Climate Change Future,” Washington Post, August 12, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/08/12/baghdad-iraq-heat-climate-change/.
- “UNICEF Report—By 2050, Every Child in Iraq Will Be Exposed to High Heatwave Frequency,” UNICEF, October 26, 2022, https://www.unicef.org/iraq/press-releases/unicef-report-2050-every-child-iraq-will-be-exposed-high-heatwave-frequency.
- “Dammed Thirsty: The Cross-Border Fight for Water,” France24, March 20, 2023, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20230320-dammed-thirsty-the-cross-border-fight-for-water
- “Iraq Country Climate and Development Report,” World Bank, 2019, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/entities/publication/7412a92b-4412-5acb-8fde-8d19048f80d1.
- “COP27: Heat, Desertification, Dying Land Intensify Struggle for Iraq’s Farmers,” Climate Centre, November 14, 2022, https://www.climatecentre.org/9545/cop27-through-desertification-searing-temperatures-and-dying-land-climate-crisis-intensifies-struggle-of-iraqs-farmers-says-icrc/.
- Rana Alfardan, “Iraq’s Growing Desertification Problem,” Planetary Security Initiative, May 4, 2021, https://www.planetarysecurityinitiative.org/news/iraqs-growing-desertification-problem.
- UNICEF, “COP27: Heat, Desertification, Dying Land.”
- “Iraq: Droughts—DREF Operation No. MDRIQ013—Final Report—Iraq,” International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies, 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/iraq-droughts-dref-operation-no-mdriq013-final-report.
- “Running Dry: Water Scarcity Threatens Lives and Development in Iraq,” UNICEF, 2021, https://www.unicef.org/iraq/press-releases/running-dry-water-scarcity-threatens-lives-and-development-iraq.
- Anita Staneva, Muhammad A. Usman, and Fabrizio Carmignani, “Child Development Impact of Water Scarcity: Evidence from Ethiopia,” August 2021, https://www.un.org/ldc5/sites/www.un.org.ldc5/files/child_development_impact_of_water_scarcity_-_anita_staneva.pdf.
- Kieran Cooke, “Rise in Sandstorms Threatens Middle East and North Africa,” Middle East Eye, 2017, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/rise-sandstorms-threatens-middle-east-and-north-africa#:~:text=Dams%20contribute%20to%20the%20problem,whipped%20up%20by%20the%20winds.
- Isabella Kwai, “Iraqis Choke under a Blanket of Dust as Sandstorms Sweep the Country,” New York Times, May 5, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/05/world/middleeast/iraq-sandstorms-climate.html.
- “Sandstorms Pose Serious Risk to Human Health: WMO,” Arab News, May 20, 2022, https://www.arabnews.com/node/2086261/middle-east; “Environment: Baghdad was exposed to the largest global pollution after the recent dust storms,” Nas News, May 18, 2022. https://www.nasnews. com/view.php?cat=86144.
- Zeinab Shuker, “Dust Storms and Climate Change: A Crisis for the Iraqi Economy, and the Need for Multilateral Solutions,” Institute of Regional and International Studies, 2022, https://www.kas.de/en/web/syrien-irak/single-title/-/content/dust-storms-and-climate-change.
- “Climate-Induced Displacement—Southern Iraq,” International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix, March 2023,https://iraqdtm.iom.int/files/Climate/2023330056362_iom_DTM_Climate_Displacement_South_March_2023.pdf.
- “Drivers of Climate-Induced Displacement in Iraq: Climate Vulnerability Assessment Key Findings,” IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, April 2023, https://iraqdtm.iom.int/files/Climate/202353458739_DTM_Climate_key_findings_en_v11.pdf. https://twitter.com/IOMIraq.
- “Iraq: A Gender and Inclusive Climate-Migration Study: Salah al-Din Governorate,” People in Need, 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/iraq-gender-and-inclusive-climate-migration-study-salah-al-din-governorate-july-august-2022.
- Patricia Schwerdtle, Kathryn Bowen, and Celia McMichael, “The Health Impacts of Climate-Related Migration,” BMC Medicine16, no. 1 (2018): 1–7.
- IOM, “Climate-Induced Displacement—Southern Iraq.”
- “A Diagnostic of the Informal Economy in Iraq,” International Labour Organization, November 26, 2021, https://www.ilo.org/beirut/publications/WCMS_830086/lang–en/index.htm.
- “The Impact of Conflict, Climate and the Economy on Agriculture in Districts of Return in Iraq,” IOM, 2023, https://iraq.un.org/en/227547-impact-conflict-climate-and-economy-agriculture-districts-return-iraq.
- “Agricultural Value Chain Study in Iraq—Dates, Grapes, Tomatoes and Wheat—2021,” World Food Programme, March 31, 2021, https://www.wfp.org/publications/agricultural-value-chain-study-iraq-dates-grapes-tomatoes-and-wheat-2021.
- “Iraq Economic Monitor: The Slippery Road to Economic Recovery,” International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, 2021, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/iraq/publication/iraq-economic-monitor-the-slippery-road-to-economic-recovery#:~:text=As%20a%20result%2C%20the%20monitor,and%20external%20deficits%20into%20surpluses.
- Duncan McLaren and Ian Willmore, “The Environmental Damage of War in Iraq,” Guardian, January 18, 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jan/19/iraq5. Some 10 million cubic meters of soil were still contaminated as late as 1998.
- See ARIEL I. Ahram, “Lessons from the Destruction of Iraq’s Marshes,” Washington Post, August 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/08/17/lessons-from-the-destruction-of-iraqs-marshes/; Curtis J. Richardson and Najah A. Hussain, “Restoring the Garden of Eden: An Ecological Assessment of the Marshes of Iraq,” BioScience56, no. 6 (2006): 477–89, https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2006)56[477:RTGOEA]2.0.CO;2.
- Thamer Khazal Al-Ameri and Sahar Y. Jassim, 2011, “Environmental Changes in the Wetlands of Southern Iraq Based on Palynological Studies,” Arab Journal of Geosciences4 (2011): 443–61.
- “The Iraqi Government Assault on the Marsh Arabs.” Human Rights Watch briefing paper, January 2003. http://www.reliefweb.int/library/documents/2003/ohci-irq-30jun.pdf.
- Hanne Kirstine Adransen, “What Happened to the Iraqi Marsh Arabs and Their Land?,” Danish Institute For International Studies, 2004, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/18548/Iraqi_Marsh_Arabs.pdf.
- Abbas Alnasrawi, “Iraq: Economic Sanctions and Consequences, 1990-2000,” Third World Quarterly22, no. 2 (2001): 205–18.
- Kaveh Madani, “How International Economic Sanctions Harm the Environment,” Earth’s Future8 no. 12 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EF001829.
- Glenn Kessler, “The Iraq War and WMDs: An Intelligence Failure or White House Spin?,” Washington Post, March 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/22/iraq-war-wmds-an-intelligence-failure-or-white-house-spin/.
- Peter Behr, “Fire Reported at Iraq Oil Field,” Washington Post, March 21, 2003, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2003/03/21/fire-reported-at-iraq-oil-field/4cd6082f-434b-4f82-a931-ae85b7878bb1/.
- Oliver August, “America Leaves Iraq a Toxic Legacy of Dumped Hazardous Materials,” Global Policy Forum, https://archive.globalpolicy.org/political-issues-in-iraq/withdrawal/49246–america-leaves-iraq-a-toxic-legacy-of-dumped-hazardous-materials.html.
- “Assessment of environmental hot Spots in Iraq,” United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2005, https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/8389.
- Dahr Jamail, “Iraq: War’s Legacy of Cancer,” Al Jazeera English, March 15, 2013, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2013/3/15/iraq-wars-legacy-of-cancer.
- Chris Busby, Malak Hamdan, and Entesar Ariabi, 2010, “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7, no. 7 (2010): 2828–37, https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/7/7/2828.
- Hadi Allafta and Christian Opp, “Spatio-Temporal Variability and Pollution Sources Identification of the Surface Sediments of Shatt Al-Arab River, Southern Iraq,” Scientific Reports10, article no. 6979 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63893-w.
- Will Higginbotham, “Iraq’s Toxic Conflict,” Inter Press Service News Agency, February 2, 2018, http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/iraqs-toxic-conflict/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iraqs-toxic-conflict.
- Tamer El, 2018. “The Islamic State’s Toxic Farewell: Environmental Sabotage and Chronic Disease,” Washington Post, February 4, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the-islamic-states-toxic-farewell-environmental-sabotage-and-chronic-disease/2018/02/04/927ff2b6-05c8-11e8-ae28-e370b74ea9a7_story.html.
- Bryan Bowman, “‘Living under a Black Sky:’ the Forgotten Cost of Conflict,” Globe Post, April 23, 2019, https://theglobepost.com/2019/01/10/iraq-conflict-pollution/.
- Wim Zwijnenburg and Foeke Postma, “Living under a Black Sky,” PAX for Peace, November 29, 2020, https://paxforpeace.nl/what-we-do/publications/living-under-a-black-sky.
- Tamer El, “The Islamic State’s Toxic Farewell.”
- “Cleaning Up after ISIS: How Iraq’s New Chemicals Team Is Trying to Undo Years of Conflict Pollution,” UNEP, https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/cleaning-after-isis-how-iraqs-new-chemicals-team-trying-undo-years-conflict.
- “Iraq Country Overview,” World Bank, June 1, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/iraq/overview; “Iraq: 2020 Article IV Consultation-Press Release; Staff Report; and Statement by the Executive Director for Iraq,” International Monetary Fund, February 11, 2021, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2021/02/10/Iraq-2020-Article-IV-Consultation-Press-Release-Staff-Report-and-Statement-by-the-Executive-50078.
- “2022 Corruption Perceptions Index,” Transparency International, 2022, https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021/index/irq.
- Mohammed Tawfeeq, “Iraq Oil Money: $150 Billion Stolen from the Country since the Us-Led Invasion of 2003,” CNN, May 23, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/05/23/middleeast/iraq-oil-money-us-invastion-intl/index.html.
- “Climate Change Inaction Threatens Iraq’s Social Stability and Long-Term Economic Development Prospects,” World Bank, November 9, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/11/09/climate-change-inaction-threatens-iraq-s-social-stability-and-long-term-economic-development-prospects.
- Zeinab Shuker, “Gas Flaring in Iraq: Structural Issues, Geopolitical Players, and Policy Implications,” Emirates Policy Center, April 11, 2022, https://epc.ae/en/details/featured/gas-flaring-in-iraq-structural-issues-geopolitical-players-and-policy-implications.
- “Unemployment, Youth Total (% Of Total Labor Force Ages 15-24) (Modeled ILO Estimate)— Iraq,” World Bank Data Bank, 2023, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS?locations=IQ.
- “Migration, Environment, and Climate Change in Iraq,” United Nations Iraq, August 11, 2022, https://iraq.un.org/en/194355-migration-environment-and-climate-change-iraq.
- Mohamed Raouf, “Climate Change Threats, Opportunities, and the GCC Countries,” Middle East Institute, April 1, 2008. https://www.mei.edu/publications/climate-change-threats-opportunities-and-gcc-countries.
- United Nations Iraq, “Migration, Environment, and Climate Change in Iraq.”
(*) Zeinab Shuker
Zeinab Shuker is a fellow at Century International and an assistant professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University in Texas. Her work explores the theoretical and policy implications of the impact of oil dependency on the Middle East and North Africa region’s economic, political, social, and environmental development, emphasizing Iraq’s past and present. She examines the interplay of oil dependency, state capacity, conflict induced by climate change, and the region’s destabilization.
Source: The Century Foundation