At the end of July, a stifling heatwave hit Iraq and other countries in the region, with the thermometer showing 51 degrees Celsius in Baghdad and 46 degrees in Damascus. With the approaching Eid al-Adha, the sweltering conditions left the people in Iraq defenceless, with no other means to protect themselves but fans and public fountains. The extreme heat caused some severe damage in the country: on July 26, the high temperatures reportedly caused an explosion of Iraq’s federal police forces’ weapons storage. Local media also reported on widespread fire outbreaks, notably that of Abu Karma, a village northeast of Baquba.
The extreme heat of the end of July came on top of popular protests against corruption, unemployment, and foreign influence in the country that have been shaking Iraq for months. This time, however, people took to the streets against power cuts and the lack of public services. On July 27, security forces killed two protesters demonstrating against the lack of electricity in Baghdad. Protests have intensified even more over the last weeks following the killing of the young protest leader Riham Yaacob, murdered in Basra on August 19. As the Iraqi police and paramilitary forces struggle to quell the riots, analysts continue to focus largely on the possible political implications. But just one month after the scorching heat that struck the region, attention should be paid to the heatwave and the heavy toll it took on Iraq. In a country that is gravely harmed by gas flaring, soil erosion, and severe droughts, policymakers and the wider Iraqi polity need to confront the brutal impact of climate change.
Chronicle of a Drought Foretold
As climate change looms large over the world, the Middle East is bound to be particularly affected by its consequences. In Egypt, the rising sea level threatens to sink Alexandria, the country’s economic hub. The rising sea levels endanger many among the five million people living in the city as basements of the buildings where they live are flooding, leading to fatal collapses. In 2016, a NASA study found that the drought, which began in 1998 in the Levant region is likely the worst drought of the past 9 centuries. The recent extreme heatwave was also predicted: in May, the World Meteorological Organisation warned that countries and communities would need to prepare for a hot summer. Indeed, without a proper strategy to reduce heat-related illness and deaths, hot temperatures in the summer would push people to congregate in crowded air-conditioned spaces, thus making it impossible to follow the COVID-19 social distancing recommendations. Ultimately, events linked to climate change are increasingly affecting every aspect of daily life in Iraq.
The Impact of Climate Change on Conflict Situations
More worryingly, climate change plays an important role in exacerbating conflicts, especially when it comes to droughts. In this regard, the case of Syria is exemplary. A study published in March 2015 on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America revealed that ‘the 2007-2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria.’ Before the war, successive droughts had hit the country, thus leading to a 25% fall in the agricultural sector’s output. Syria began to import wheat and other essential commodities, which further weakened its economy, too dependent on imports. One of the most severe droughts (2007-2010) left the rural zones of Syria particularly affected. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the crisis has negatively impacted the food security of 1.3 million people. Consequently, tens of thousands of Syrians from the north-eastern region were forced to migrate towards the suburbs of the larger cities. These internally displaced people, in turn, reinforced the lack of essential services for citizens already living in the cities and increased competition for underpaid or irregular jobs.
Although the current situation in Iraq is different from that of Syria in 2011, there are nonetheless some striking similarities. In its Revised humanitarian response to the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the FAO warned of Iraq’s vulnerability to COVID-19 because of pre-existing conditions, such as poverty and ongoing displacement due to past conflicts. The FAO reported that the agricultural supply chains of Iraq still face major constraints, thus increasing food insecurity. The latter, combined with poverty and the Covid-19 pandemic, is likely to trigger a downward spiral that will precipitate Iraq in a state of generalised conflict. Iraqi citizens are already in conflict against the Government over the fragile political situation and the frequent power shortages. Therefore, energy security and the fight against the effects of climate change should be increasingly more present on the government’s agenda.
Energy and Climate Change in Iraq - Whither from here?
The news from the last months paint an image of a country in turmoil, where meteorological events ranging from heat and fires to sandstorms and soil erosion are likely to lead to more conflicts. However, the Iraqi government might have some tricks up its sleeve: on September 2, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, discussed ‘a future project to use nuclear energy to produce electricity and solve decades-long power shortages.’ This effort to diversify Iraq’s energy mix, still too dependent on hydrocarbons and thus contributing to emissions and pollution in the region, adds up to the commitments that the Iraqi government made three years ago, when, according to the World Bank, it promised to end routine gas flaring.
However, while ending dangerous practices, such as gas flaring, and efforts to diversify Iraq’s energy sources are paramount for tackling the climate emergency and contributing to peace in the Iraqi society, these efforts risk being vain without a comprehensive climate change strategy adopted at the regional and global level. Until that happens, the future is uncertain.
8 September 2020
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 FAO’s Role in the Syria Drought Response Plan 2009, August 11, 2019. http://www.fao.org/emergencies/appeals/detail/en/c/149366/
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(COVID-19), Rome. http://www.fao.org/3/cb0207en/CB0207EN.pdf
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