|Farmer in Baaj, Ninewa looking at what used to be farmland (Norwegian Refugee Council)
Iraq’s environmental crisis continues to worsen with no end in sight. The Norwegian Refugee Council just released a new report which provides more details on the situation.
The Council begins by saying that the climate is changing faster than people in Iraq can adapt. Demand for water continues to grow, the government has not really responded in any meaningful way, and more people are losing their livelihoods and their homes as a result.
For instance, in August 2023 the Water Ministry said the country’s water reserves were at the lowest level in history. The ministry warned that unless urgent action is taken the Tigris and Euphrates could go dry by 2040. The United Nations found that that the nation is losing around 100,000 acres of arable land each year due to drought. Finally, Iraqis use outdated farming practices that rely upon a large amount of water which is becoming scarce.
The report included a survey of people in Anbar, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahaddin. 60% of farmers in Anbar, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahaddin said they had to cultivate less land or use less water in 2023. 4 of 5 respondents in farming areas in Kirkuk and Ninewa had to cut food spending over the last 12 months because they lacked money. 1 in 4 small farmers in the Sinjar and Baaj districts in western Ninewa said they gave up farming in 2023. 1 in 4 thought of moving because of drought. This points to people losing their income because of the lack of water which is in turn reducing families spending and leading many people to leave their land and migrate to the cities looking for work.
Things did not change overall even though there was more water in 2023 than estimated. That led to the best harvest in years. There was a change in the distribution of rain however with most hitting central and southern Iraq and less in the north. 51% of respondents in the poll said they had adequate water in 2023 vs only 32% in 2022. As a result, household income increased from 2021 to 2023. The rate of income growth dropped however from 20% from 2021-22 to only 6.67% in 2022-23.
The lack of water has also increased social tensions in communities. The Ninewa Plains reported the highest levels of tension in the survey. It has a large number of displaced returns, lacks infrastructure and water. Climate change is leading to greater competition over resources and jobs which is causing conflicts at the local level across the country. Iraqi news is full of reports of violent clashes between tribes some of which are caused by the environment.
The problem is the country’s infrastructure can’t handle the crisis and the government has done little. Dams for instance were built to control flooding not to collect and preserve water. The government has limited regulations on water usage and the ones it does have often lead to inequalities and can make the situation worse. In the summer of 2023 the Salahaddin Water Directorate closed canals making it impossible for farmers downstream from continuing to plant their crops. In 2014 the Water Ministry asked for $184 billion to improve infrastructure but nothing has happened. Passing legislation to deal with the issue is impeded by the bureaucracy and the lack of political will amongst the ruling parties. This is one of the biggest issues facing Iraq and the elite are disinterested.
Norwegian Refugee Council, “Inadequate and inequitable: water scarcity and displacement in Iraq,” 11/26/23