by Austin Bodetti
As Iraq continues its lengthy recovery from a ruinous four-year showdown between the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and an American-led coalition, Iraqi officials are determining which aspect of their country’s reconstruction to prioritize. Among the most pressing challenges remains confronting the twin phenomena of climate change and environmental degradation, problems that weighed on Iraq well before the rise of IS. Though overcoming environmental issues from desertification to water scarcity in the wake of a conflict seems daunting, Iraqi environmentalists have begun preparing themselves for the task.
The obstacles facing Iraqi environmentalists extend well beyond an uphill battle with the most disastrous aspects of global warming. Throughout the Middle East, environmental organizations’ ties to the international community can create distance between them and the populations they serve.
“Nongovernmental organizations are met with suspicion in the Middle East in general, as they are viewed as vessels of the West, which sponsors their operations,” remarks Azzam Alwash, founder of the environmental organization Nature Iraq and one of Iraq’s most prominent environmentalists.
Iraqi officials have more political leeway to push an environmental policy than their counterparts in civil society. For its part, the Iraqi environmental ministry is organizing the response to environmental issues in regions on the front lines of climate change, such as Basra, one of Iraq’s largest cities.
“In previous years, the Iraqi government has launched many initiatives to promote environmental protection, including large-scale efforts to recycle municipal solid waste and treat radioactive waste,” says Haydar al-Ebady, cofounder of the Iraqi company Bilad UTU Energy Solutions. “However, these projects have proved insufficient for many reasons, among them corruption and excessive bureaucracy.”
The financial, logistical, and social burden of rebuilding a country that was already dealing with the aftermath of a war before the appearance of IS has sometimes overwhelmed the Iraqi government, which has received less humanitarian aid from the international community than Iraqis had expected. This lack of assistance has undermined the government’s ability to reinstall the vital infrastructure for sanitation, contributing to water scarcity, Iraq’s environmental issue with the worst long-term consequences.
“No Iraqi city has a fully operating sewage collection and treatment system,” says Alwash in reference to an environmental issue worsened by Iraq’s most recent conflict. “Iraq uses the Tigris and the Euphrates as open sewers. When there was enough water, dilution was the solution to this problem. However, the concern now is that there is not enough water to dilute the sewage.”
In Iraq, environmental issues such as water scarcity have often had political consequences. IS recruited farmers devastated by droughts by offering them another source of income. Water pollution and scarcity?combined with an energy crisis?also sparked protests last year in Basra, ending with the destruction of a consulate and many other buildings. Given that climate change will exacerbate droughts in Iraq, the government has a vested interest in addressing the environmental issue.
“Today there are 36 million Iraqis,” notes Alwash. “There will be 50 million in 2030 and 80 million by 2050. Water is already limited now, and Iraq will hit water bankruptcy by 2030. By 2050, we may see the end of irrigated agriculture in Iraq if the status quo ante is maintained.”
“There are no hazardous waste disposal sites in Iraq and no proper dumping sites,” observes Alwash, pointing to Iraq’s ever-growing challenges with waste management. “Air pollution and noise pollution are prevalent in the cities—not to mention the hydrocarbon spillage from the private generators. Of course, the oil-extraction industry is the biggest contributor to spillage issues.”
Oil spills have polluted waterways throughout the Iraqi hinterlands once controlled by IS, which relied on oil wells that it seized to fund its campaigns. In Basra, meanwhile, an oil spill last year caught fire, adding to air pollution in a city already wracked with environmental issues.
“Iraqis depend on selling oil to eat,” Alwash tells LobeLog. “Oil income is about 95 percent of our economy, and this reliance will aggravate the problem of water bankruptcy in the next decade, given the expected decrease in oil prices and the increase in demand for water. The Iraqi government needs to convert the south of Iraq into forests of solar-power generation, exporting electricity instead of oil.”
Earlier this month, the Iraqi government started seeking bids for several solar parks, indicating that it recognizes the value in switching from the petroleum industry to the renewable energy industry. Iraqi officials can expand this environmental policy by increasing the availability of solar power.
“The Iraqi government can support environmental protection in many ways,” argues el-Ebady. “For example, it can bolster the renewable energy industry by establishing a public fund that finances the purchase of solar panels with soft loans—ones without interest and a repayment period of no less than 10 years. Iraqi officials can also cancel or at least reduce the tariffs on renewable-energy systems and other eco-friendly materials in addition to reducing plastic pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.”
The more Iraq embraces sustainable development, the better prepared Iraqis will find themselves for the effects of global warming, which will ravage the countries of the Persian Gulf in particular.
“The Iraqi government must encourage the use of hydropower, solar power, wind power, and other examples of renewable energy and increase awareness about energy consumption,” says al-Ebady, adding that Iraq’s ever-growing water footprint also endangers the country.
The international community can move to support a comprehensive environmental policy in Iraq by providing more humanitarian aid. The Iraqi government already collaborates with the United Nations Environmental Program, and aid agencies such as the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development and the United States Agency for International Development have presences inside Iraq. Although environmental protection and reconstruction will likely demand much of Iraqis themselves, the many Middle Eastern and Western countries allied with Iraq have a stake in helping it achieve a more eco-friendly future.
“Which of the above is the priority?” wonders Alwash. “In my opinion, we need to have solutions implemented now so that we do not face water bankruptcy in 2030.”
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.