COVID-19 and environmental sustainability in Iraq: UNDP report

    11 Oct 2021

    Let’s have a look on the important document about the impact of COVID-19 on environmental sustainability in Iraq. It’s the fifth in a series released by UNDP on the effects of COVID-19 in Iraq.

    The authors emphasize how the pandemic has exacerbated Iraq’s environmental fragility. It was already affected by legacies of conflict, lack of significant public sector and governance reforms, loss of development gains and illicit activity such as illegal hunting, fishing and logging, amongst other factors.

    UNDP outlines how the virus has led to some negative environmental impacts, such as increased quantities of medical waste, but also positive impacts, such as temporary improvements in air quality and ecosystems. The authors also propose how key drivers of fragility can be addressed over time.

    Environmental sustainability in Iraq in the run-up to the COVID-19 pandemic Iraq was facing serious environmental challenges even before the COVID-19 pandemic. These included water scarcity, deteriorating water quality, degraded landscapes, air pollution and poor waste management.

    The causes of this environmental degradation are many and complex, but they stem from legacies of conflict and past decisions, weak governance and corruption, as well as the impacts of climate change and rapid, unplanned urbanization. Addressing these challenges has, to date, been hindered by fractured responsibility for environmental governance, and a lack of integrated policymaking as well as policy enforcement based on data and science, although an active and growing civil society sector is pushing environmental action up the political agenda.

    The COVID-19 pandemic is a human health crisis that overlays and exacerbates our planetary health crisis. Over the past decades, human activities have significantly altered three-quarters of the Earth’s land area and two-thirds of oceans.

     As the 2020 UNDP Human Development Report notes, this has led to the emergence of an entirely new geological epoch. This has been dubbed ‘the Anthropocene’, or ‘the age of the human’.

    This era is marked by the unwelcome environmental imprint that humans have collectively left on the planet: millions of tons of plastic in the oceans, concentrations of warming gases in the atmosphere that are unprecedented in the evolutionary history of modern humans, and the accelerating loss of biodiversity on land and at sea. Over the last 50 years, the biosphere – the life support system on which humanity relies – has been altered to an unparalleled degree. Our current economic model, where the ‘growth at all costs’ trajectory relies on fossil fuels and the overuse of renewable resources, threatens the health of humans and the planet itself.5 Inequality has worsened, and economic growth has progressed at the expense of the sustainability of the biosphere, even though we have known of the close interdependencies between the biosphere and human well-being for decades.

    The poorest and most marginalized groups in society typically bear the greatest burden of this environmental degradation in terms of greater inequality and severe environmental health challenges.

    While both our future and the achievement of the SDGs rely on a healthy planet, the environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have further complicated existing challenges. Even before the pandemic, the world was off-track to meet the 17 goals and their 169 targets.8 The Arab region faces particularly acute environmental challenges: climate change, rapidly declining freshwater in places it is needed most, sand and dust storms, air and water pollution, and poor waste management, among other threats.

    The availability of freshwater is particularly concerning across the entire region: 18 of the 22 Arab States fall below the threshold of 1,000 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per person per year. Fifteen of those countries have less than half that, falling in the category of absolute freshwater scarcity, where the lack of water constrains economic growth, food security and health. Jordan and Yemen are, by some measures, two of the most water-impoverished countries in the world. Climate change is worsening the scarcity of key resources, such as fertile land, to devastating effect. In the decade leading up to the start of the pandemic, these ‘new’ challenges combined with the consequences of devastating conflicts and negligent environmental management likely pitched an even greater share of the region’s population into extreme poverty –6.7% in 2015, up from 4% in 2013. It was the only region of the planet to witness such a surge.

    Conclusions and recommendations COVID-19 is exacerbating Iraq’s environmental fragility, which was already affected by legacies of conflict, lack of significant public sector and governance reforms, loss of development gains, and illicit activity such as illegal hunting, fishing and logging, among other factors. Building long-term resilience and supporting sustainable, equitable growth requires addressing the impacts of climate change, reducing the impact of water scarcity, easing the chronic lack of access to energy, staunching environmental pollution and correcting ineffective waste management systems. Iraq can find an opportunity in this crisis by mainstreaming environmental sustainability in its response to the pandemic, while addressing the deep-rooted, systemic causes of environmental fragility hindering progress on the SDGs.

    Over the next 6 to 12 months, Iraq should focus on mitigating pollution, improving the management of solid waste and medical waste, mainstreaming environmental sustainability into recovery planning, and securing adequate national and international resources for environmental protection. Over the medium to long term, Iraq should work to strengthen environmental governance; encourage climate-friendly, sustainable long-term growth; support biodiversity and harness the power of nature by introducing nature-based solutions; build community.

    Response, recovery and reconstruction

    In late December 2020, the Iraqi government signed a preliminary deal to receive 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, due to be delivered in early 2021. Although the end of the pandemic is still a long way away, attention is beginning to turn to how to restart economic activity and foster recovery after the worst of the humanitarian phase of the crisis begins to recede.

    The Iraqi Government is currently developing its postCOVID-19 national recovery plan. Some commentators argue that the pandemic has given Iraqis a valuable lesson in how the country might look by 2040 or 2050 and thrown into sharp relief the need to ‘reconfigure’ it in line with a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.

    Little Government-led action to address the direct and indirect environmental impacts of the pandemic is evident, however. Only some sporadic civil society efforts have sought to tackle COVID-19-related waste, such as by cleaning up hospital waste around Sulaymaniyah.

    One significant institutional change on the horizon is a plan to split the Ministry of Health and Environment 20 UNDP – The Impact of COVID-19 on Environmental Sustainability in Iraq in two, setting up a self-standing Ministry of the Environment before the next election, slated for October 2021. This would reverse a 2015 decision to cut 11 ministerial posts under former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

    In October 2020, the Cabinet adopted the Iraqi Economic Reform plan to address the budget deficit, create more fiscal space, and put the federal budget on a more sustainable path. While environmental issues are not prominent in the plan, it touches on water and waste, suggesting that service fees need to be improved for water supply and quality. Solid waste can be converted into energy using eco-friendly technologies.

    The United Nations COVID-19 Socio-Economic Response Plan for Iraq was launched in August 2020. It includes supporting the Government to mainstream environmental sustainability across five pillars: health first, protecting people, economic response and recovery, social cohesion and community resilience, and macroeconomic response and multilateral collaboration. Annex 1 includes a summary of some of the ways that environmental issues intersect with these. Currently, the government is developing its COVID-19 National Recovery Plan, which makes environmental sustainability a cross-cutting issue and emphasizes the importance of a green recovery.

    Click here to read the full report.

    You may read about the Iraqi toxic legacy and remediating pollution in Iraq here.

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