Climate Activism in Iraq: A Dangerous Undertaking

Tents are seen in Tahrir Square during an anti-government sit-in in Baghdad on December 26, 2019. (Ameer Al Mohmmedaw/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

The climate in the Middle East and North Africa is warming twice as fast as the average global temperature rise, but in Iraq, this is happening two to seven times faster. Although drought is a natural phenomenon in the region, global warming is adding to the challenge for people living there to adapt to water scarcity. In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change marked the region as being extremely vulnerable to climate change, mainly due to rising temperatures and declining water resources. The region’s recurrent violence—due to political conflicts and wars—further complicates efforts to respond to these problems.

Responses to Climate Impacts

A well-known example of what could be considered a climate-induced conflict is the 2018 violent protests which took place in Basra, southern Iraq, where extreme heatwaves eventually led to the deterioration of the water supply in the city’s main river, the Shatt al-Arab. In 2019, these youth-led protests for better services were succeeded by a series of grassroots demonstrations across the country to demand major economic, social and, political reforms known as the Tishreen Movement.

Climate change is not the only culprit that is causing problems with water supplies and related issues like water pollution and desertification. These problems result from a series of interrelated issues, ranging from poor water governance to institutional corruption.

Despite the recent efforts of the Iraqi government to ratify the Paris Agreement and heighten the ambition at the COP26 climate talks, the past decades of inaction continue to frustrate Iraqi climate activists. This can be attributed to a preoccupation with armed and political conflicts within the country and the failure to recognize climate change as a security threat to Iraq.

Motivated by concerns about their future, several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and campaigns led by the youth have initiated projects such as forest plantation, monitoring, and raising awareness. However, these efforts are not sufficient to stop the trend of the devastating climate-induced impact which, for instance, widespread desertification and salt-water intrusion have on the lives of the citizens of southern Iraq. In the last twenty years, the number of citizens of the city of Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, has increased to around three million people. Although agriculture is not the largest economic sector in this region, the area of greater Basra hosts numerous farming communities. Because of the desertification, these communities find it increasingly hard to survive on the revenues from agricultural activities. Mostly in southern Iraq, the country loses 250 square kilometers of arable lands each year, forcing many farmers to migrate to urban areas.

Paying a Heavy Price

Compelled by the urgency of the situation, climate and environmental activists put pressure on the authorities and pled for support from the international community. The activists drew attention to the effects of climate change on farming communities and in urban settings by tracing stories of individuals from the southern parts of the country, including the marshes, and by using available tools such as mass media platforms. They eventually succeeded in bringing international and local attention to the grave impacts of climate change, but some paid a heavy price for their efforts.

Many activists who took part in the Tishreen Movement and its call for reforms are being regarded with suspicion by the Iraqi government and non-state armed groups. They have been threatened, kidnapped, and even killed. Coupled with limited funds and capacity issues, climate activism in Iraq has become a very difficult undertaking. In other parts of the world, climate activists often face similar harsh realities, but the situation in Iraq is particularly precarious as not only are the activists under threat but so are their families. This situation is blocking the chance of initiating climate adaptation, climate mitigation, and connecting with international donors.

Climate-Related Migration

Migration to the urban centers in Iraq has been ongoing for decades, driven either by the loss of livelihoods within the farming communities or by declining water supplies in small towns. In recent years, this trend has become the norm and it has led to an increase in social and economic tensions between the newcomers and the original inhabitants. Urban centers, like Basra and Baghdad, were already struggling with deteriorating water and power infrastructure, which further limits the ability of the local NGOs to guide policies. Incidental reports indicate a decline in employment rates among the newcomers, increasing the possibility that they gravitate towards criminal or militia groups.

Indicators of migration toward regions and countries that are less climate-stressed have also been registered, despite a lack of data. However, it is unclear whether climate migrants will be able to leave Iraq for Europe and it is unlikely that many will be able to pay human traffickers the hefty amounts required. Nevertheless, recent events such as the desperate attempts of Iraqis to reach the European Union via Belarus indicate there are many Iraqi migrants who want to build a new future for themselves in Europe. There is growing uncertainty about how Europe is going to prepare itself for such a climate-refugee influx, especially since populism and semi-authoritarian regimes are on the rise.

Moreover, the European continent itself is not immune to climate impacts, and it might even face similar threats to those southern Iraq is having to deal with currently. As a next step, European actors could reinforce collaboration and work with Iraqi civil society, as well as with the Iraqi government, in setting up early response plans and creating a safe environment for foreign investment in renewable energy. Most importantly, international partners should look to support capacity building in the field of climate activism, ensure the safety of climate activists, and raise awareness with Iraqi politicians of the need for climate action. Instead of having to fear for their lives, the Iraqi climate activists should be ensured of support. Climate change is not a partisan issue, but one that affects us all.

Maha Yassin is a Junior Research Fellow at the Planetary Security Initiative, Clingendael Institute.

This article was first published in Idee magazine on December 29, 2021, and can be accessed on the website of the Planetary Security Initiative.