Election campaigns and slogans have filled social media, the airways, and the streets of Iraq for the past month. Candidates vying for votes are promising citizens a better future, but these prospective lawmakers have failed to address one of the biggest issues facing Iraq – the climate crisis, Rudaw states.
“This concerns me greatly,” Rosetta Rebwar, an environmentalist from Sulaimani, told Rudaw English. “Our policymakers are turning a blind eye regarding the environmental issues we’re facing, firstly because of lack of awareness, secondly, not being educated enough to feel any concern.”
Iraqis will vote on Sunday in the sixth parliamentary election since the US-led invasion of Iraq eighteen years ago that toppled Saddam Hussein. In those years, the country has witnessed bloody sectarian conflict, fought a war against extremism, seen interference in its affairs from neighboring countries and corruption has spread through the government.
“Candidates, coalitions and parties promise better electricity, economy, salary and rights,” said Rebwar, but their proposals recycle the tired promises of the past, “instead of real change, using the same old methods, causing more environmental problems.”
Iraq faces multiple threats from the climate crisis, including water shortages, desertification, and rising temperatures. Climate-related displacement is already occurring and food insecurity is growing.
President Barham Salih shared some grim numbers on Wednesday: desertification affects 39 percent of the country, more than half the agricultural land has been degraded by salinization, by 2035 the water deficit will be 10.8 billion cubic metres, and the population is expected to double by 2050.
Aid agencies working in Iraq and Syria issued a dire warning in August that more than 12 million people in both countries are losing access to water, food, and electricity because of a severe water crisis. Wheat production in Nineveh is down by 70 percent and by half in the Kurdistan Region. “The unfolding water crisis will soon become an unprecedented catastrophe pushing more into displacement,” the aid agencies said.
The crisis will likely cause mass displacement, mainly in Iraq’s southern provinces, Jassim al-Falahi, undersecretary at the Ministry of Environment and Health, told Rudaw. “If this situation keeps worsening like this, we have to expect mass displacement, which means the increase of random neighborhoods around the cities that are initially suffering from lack of services,” he said.
Lack of government policy and poor public awareness have worsened the environmental crisis in Iraq, the fifth-most vulnerable nation in the world to the effects of climate change.
“I think in spite of all these challenges; unfortunately, there’s no attention for the environmental sector, especially when we are looking after the candidates of the election. No one talks about food security and water security,” Falahi told Ruaw English last week.
“In other countries, many programs of the candidates are taking this as an essential program in their campaign,” he added. He believes there is a lot to be done in Iraq to build education and awareness: “I think the capacity building, and increasing the level of awareness, it’s very important.”
When asked about why the climate crisis has been largely neglected during the campaign, Jwan Abdullah, running for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Erbil, said it’s not her field of expertise, but she “will support” legislation if it is proposed in parliament. Aso Faraidoon, a candidate for the Kurdistan Coalition in Sulaimani, said he had nothing to say on the issue. Rudaw English reached out to at least ten other candidates, but they did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2018, a teenager in Sweden began skipping school once a week to protest and demand climate action from politicians. Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future has since grown into an international youth movement.
In Babylon, 17-year-old Abdulrahman Thamer joined the movement, protesting online as part of Fridays For Future Digital.
“The best thing individuals like me can do to tackle climate change is putting pressure on the government and politicians to make them take action to solve the climate crisis,” he told Rudaw English.
He believes the government has many options to tackle the climate crisis. “They can stop investing in fossil fuels and find an alternative to it, they can plant more trees and invest in green energy,” he said.
Baghdad is just beginning to develop a climate strategy. A year ago, the parliament voted to accede to the Paris Agreement, wanting to put the country “on the right track” as they formulated a plan to meet their obligations under the accord, Falahi said in a June interview with Rudaw.
President Salih last week announced the Council of Ministers approved an initiative dubbed Mesopotamian Revitalization that is a “framework for adapting Green Strategy to mitigate effects of climate change on Iraq and the region.” The strategies he listed include reforestation, modernization of water management, sustainable energy, and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.
Energy production is an area of focus for the current government. Iraq’s demand for energy increases every year and will continue to do as hellish summer temperatures rise above 50 degrees Celsius, especially in southern and central provinces. Most of Iraq’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels and the government is making small steps to switch to renewable sources.
On Thursday, Baghdad signed a contract with the UAE for the construction of five solar power plants. Earlier this year it made a similar agreement with a Chinese company to build solar plants with a 2,000 MW capacity.
Iraq and the Kurdistan Region are also trying to end the environmentally damaging practice of flaring gas at its oil fields. Iraq is the world’s second worst offender in gas flaring and recently partnered with an American company to capture gas at southern oil fields. Companies operating in the Kurdistan Region were this summer given 18 months to end flaring.
But the governments’ plans and efforts are too slow and not nearly enough for activists like Rebwar. For the politicians, “it’s got to fall apart before they start taking action. But nature doesn’t work that way, because once we reach that point, there is no going back,” she said.
Are you impressed by this issue? You may check the UNDP report about the COVID-19 and environmental sustainability in Iraq here.