Tackling barriers to climate reform in Iraq

During the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 28) in 2023, the Iraqi president Abdullatif Rasheed pledged to undertake rapid executive measures to tackle the effects of climate change. Iraq is among the five most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. Yet the country’s political elite are routinely pushing environmental issues off the government agenda in their pursuit of personal and party interests through politically sanctioned corruption. A former minister highlighted the challenges of addressing and prioritizing environmental concerns within the political and governmental agenda: ‘When we attempt to bring up water or environmental issues during the council of ministers’ meetings, we struggle to secure enough time for these discussions, as the agenda is predominantly occupied by political, economic and security issues.’

Iraq’s political elite often pursue agendas which are primarily populist in nature, rather than focusing on the strategic, long-term planning necessary for Iraq’s sustainable development. As a result, they tend to favour short-term projects that can secure immediate public support. For example, in 2015, after farmers in Najaf mounted protests to demand water for crops and the resignation of the Minister of Water Resources Mohsen Al Shammary, he diverted water allocations from other provinces to that area. This short-term measure was taken to appease demonstrators, but it did nothing to help develop comprehensive long-term projects to introduce and subsidize modern, less water-intensive irrigation techniques. Between 2022 and 2023, desertification attributed to water scarcity in Najaf rose by 5 per cent. Agriculture accounts for just 2.85 per cent of Iraq’s GDP, yet the sector consumes 75 per cent of Iraq’s water resources.

The tendency among the political elite to seek initiatives to enrich their personal wealth and party coffers has further repercussions for the government’s ability to tackle the climate crisis. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than one in ten people in climate-vulnerable areas in central and southern Iraq were displaced between 2016 and 2022. This figure doubled in 2023, with projections indicating that the situation will likely deteriorate further. In Basra, the impacts of this displacement are clearly visible. Thousands of informal housing units have been built on previously agricultural land all over the province by people who were displaced from Missan and Dhi Qar, north of Basra. This new wave of displacement has put further pressure on already stretched services in Basra. Informal housing units are illegally tapping into water pipelines and decreasing the amount of water available to other parts of the province. In response, Basra’s Municipality along with the Iraqi Security Forces routinely bulldoze the illegal houses. Instead of providing enough affordable social housing for displaced people, the local government is building private gated compounds for the province’s elite. Local politicians often gain from the contracts for these compounds, either through direct cuts or as shareholders in companies that win the contracts.

Sources of environmental tension

Iraq’s water shortages are exacerbated by upstream dams that Turkey and Iran have been building since the 1970s. Coupled with increased temperatures and a decline in rainfall, the dams have contributed to reducing the amount of water available in Iraq. This has caused problems of increased levels of salinity in Iraqi water sources. Since the summer of 2023, water from the Karun River in Iran has been allowed to flow into the Shatt Al Arab river, reducing the salinity of the water in Basra. The opening of the dam on the Karun river was a political decision reached between Iraq and Iran to prevent any recurrence of water protests such as in 2018, when increased salinity contributed to water pollution, and the poisoning and hospitalization of more than 100,000 people in Basra.

Long-term measures to ensure equitable transboundary water-sharing between Iraq and its neighbours have been neglected. The ethno-sectarian power-sharing system (known as the muhasasa system) of government also affects the civil service. With the transition of each government, key technical positions are freshly appointed in line with the interests of the winning political parties, leading to a loss of critical institutional knowledge, technical expertise, and progress in negotiations. For example, in May 2023, the council of ministers dismissed 57 director generals across four different entities at the same time, including key positions within the Ministry of Water Resources. Both the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Water Resources struggle with inadequate budgeting, insufficient staffing and poor infrastructure, which significantly hamper their operational capabilities. Environmental activists drew attention to this in May 2023 during the drafting and approval of the national budget for 2023 to 2025 by the Iraqi parliament, which excluded funding for environmental or climate-related projects.

When activists have tried to raise awareness of the serious threats that Iraq faces due to climate change and government inaction, they have been systematically targeted through defamation, threats or kidnapping. Since the October 2019 uprising, Iraq’s political elite has been increasingly cautious of all forms of activism, including environmental. This apprehension has prompted many environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to scale back their operations despite playing a vital role in complementing government efforts to address environmental issues. A particular low point was the kidnapping in February 2023 of Jassim al-Assadi, a prominent environmental activist from the group Nature Iraq, following allegations that it was aligned with ‘foreign agendas’. He was freed after two weeks in captivity. The kidnapping highlighted the risks faced by individual environmental activists in Iraq, and underscored the challenging situation in which NGOs operate, affecting their ability to hold the country’s political elite to account for their inaction.

Changing the approach

The risks from climate change are not solely the result of changes to physical systems but are also being exacerbated and even produced by economic and political dynamics. It is of vital importance therefore that the government of Iraq works to mitigate these risks in order to enforce the measures promised by the president at COP28. To do this, Iraq needs a holistic strategy – one that involves collaboration between the Iraqi government, local civil society organizations and the international community.

A clear distinction needs to be made between the politics of power-sharing and the formulation of environmental policies, in order to halt the government tendency to adopt short-term, populist policies. This can be achieved using a ‘networked approach’ where reformists from the government work hand-in-hand with civil society activists and utilize the media to push for sustainable environmental reforms.

It is essential that the Iraqi government, under the leadership of President Rasheed and Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, pushes for the retention, return or new appointment of senior civil servants who are independent of the muhasasa system. This includes water and climate experts who have dedicated years to addressing these critical issues within Iraq but who have been overlooked or removed from their positions due to that system. By involving these experts, Iraq can develop and implement an effective climate strategy.

Civil society and media outlets are both crucial for raising environmental awareness among communities and promoting public support. Environmental organizations such as Hummat Dijla and Nature Iraq have worked on these issues for years. Their collaboration with politically independent experts – whether within the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Water Resources or the Prime Minister’s Office – can provide a sense of security and alignment with government initiatives, ensuring the groups operate under a protective umbrella.

The international community also plays a critical role in driving environmental progress in Iraq. Through conditional financial, technical and legal assistance to Iraqi led projects, it can motivate Iraq’s political leadership to make genuine commitments to environmental improvements. This approach of conditional support helps to ensure that international aid is utilized efficiently. To gain the most impact and efficiency, international aid focusing on climate change and water management should be coordinated with both the independent Iraqi experts and civil society organizations, creating a unified front for addressing Iraq’s environmental challenges.

This article is part of a series from Chatham House that provides in-depth insights into the inner-workings of Iraq’s government and evaluate what recent developments – both public and behind the scenes – reveal about prospects for a more a stable, accountable and prosperous Iraqi state.

This series is part of the workstream on the political economy of reform, under the Middle East and North Africa Programme’s Iraq Initiative, led by project director Dr Renad Mansour.