Party to Paris Accord, Can Iraq Stop Climate Change Turning Fields to Deserts?

By Hannah Lynch, Rudaw, 16 February 2021

Kalar, Kurdistan Region of Iraq — Driving south through Sulaimani province, the snow-capped Zagros Mountains recede in the rear view mirror and the hills subside into undulating rolls, lush green with winter crops. Keep going and you reach Kalar, where the colour begins to fade; go further, to Kifri, and green is replaced by brown, barren fields and stones fill wide, dry riverbeds that flow with water only during a heavy rain. 

This is the Garmiyan area. Garma, the root of the name, means hot in Kurdish, and even on a February day, when the temperature is a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius, you can feel the intensity of the sun, burning through layers of clothing and skin, hinting at the blistering days of summer when the mercury soars over 50 and hot, dry winds whip up sand and dust storms. 

Garmiyan is on the brink of an environmental disaster, desert eating away at what was once a rich agricultural region. 

“We have no water,” said Haji Sirwan Sadiq Salah, a farmer of land on the outskirts of Kifri. 

He walks me out to see his fields. His crop of barley would normally be at least a metre tall at this time of year, but the ribbed earth is patchy with tufts of green no more than five centimetres tall. Because of a lack of rain, Salah will have no crop to harvest and will lose the main source of income for his large, multi-generation family of 30. 

Salah is not alone. “Look at any field around here, you’ll see the same thing,” he said. 

Iraq is among the most vulnerable nations in the world to the effects of climate change, including extreme temperatures and water shortages. Bogged down by insecurity, political maneuvering, and corruption, the enormity of the environmental challenge has remained largely off the radar in Baghdad. There is hope, however, that things may change, after the parliament voted on September 22, 2020 to join the Paris climate accord.

The legally binding 2015 Paris agreement has set a goal of limiting global warming to below two degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. The 196 countries that have signed on to the accord must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience to the impacts of rising temperatures. Financial assistance for countries who need it is built into the accord.

“Iraq is heading into a new era, planning on a paradigm shift toward more economic diversity. This includes support for renewable energies and access to environmentally friendly technologies,” President Barham Salih told the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit on December 12.

Without a developed economy or industrial sector, Iraq is not a major emitter of greenhouse gases, Salih said, so its environmental strategy will focus on helping the most vulnerable segments of society and mitigating the effects of climate change.

The Garmiyan area is traditionally water-rich. The Sirwan River flows the length of the region, there is good groundwater, and regular precipitation means the agriculture is rainfed, not irrigated. But all of those resources are failing. Iran has damned the Sirwan River, and the rains that feed the fields are less reliable. 

“It rains less and less every year… It’s okay to have a drought once every 10 years, but if we look at the last 20 years, we have a drought once every two or three years,” said Abdulmutalib Raafat Sarhat, a civil and environmental engineer specializing in water management at the University of Garmian.

As those water sources dry up, people are drilling more wells and groundwater levels are dropping. 

“We have a problem with desertification. It was a little before, but now it’s a lot,” said Sarhat.

Sustainable, large-scale agriculture began thousands of years ago in present-day Iraq, helped by the unique environment and climate. Annual floods in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers would sweep rich soil from the Zagros Mountains to the southern plains and wash away salt into the sea. But those floods have stopped, and today Iraq’s water is threatened on all fronts. Less water is flowing into the country as Turkey and Iran build dams on the rivers Iraq relies on for the majority of its water, while in the south, a salt wedge is moving up from the Gulf, contaminating drinking water and forcing families off their farmlands. Chronic mismanagement, waste, and unchecked pollution make the matter worse. 

While Iraq’s water resources are threatened, it does have something else in ample supply – sunlight. And one man thinks Iraq should seize the opportunity of joining the Paris agreement to use the sun to secure the water, and maybe even help salvage the economy in the process. 

“Iraq joining the climate club, or the climate treaty, means that there’s going to be a lot of investments in Iraq from the Green Climate Fund,” said Azzam Alwash, founder of Nature Iraq and Goldman Environmental Prize laureate. “Iraq will receive, one hopes, if it plays its cards right, a lot of help in helping its economy adjust as income decreases from oil…, investments in technologies that will help it change its economy.”

He suggests Iraq should become an exporter of solar energy. “One of the ideas is putting photovoltaic cells in southern Iraq,” he explained. It can then “export photovoltaic electric energy to Turkey, and from Turkey of course to Europe.”

Supplying Turkey with electricity would give Iraq leverage, which it does not have right now, in its dealings with its northern neighbour, especially over water. If Ankara cuts the water, Baghdad can cut the power. 

“This is grand, this is big, but it’s essentially based on the idea of creating mutual interests through the management of sustainable and renewable energy between Turkey and Iraq, and hopefully Iran,” Alwash explained. 

Morocco is a possible example. It has made massive investments in solar energy and is one of the few countries that may meet its targets under the Paris accord. 

The complication, as is all too frequent in Iraq, is political will. 

“Here is what is missing from the recipe: political will on this point,” said Alwash. “Yes, we are behind the 8 ball as they say in billiards, but it’s not impossible… we need to have Iraqis wake up.”

The government is currently drafting its Paris climate plan – called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – and hopes to have it completed by April. It is working off an intended NDCs plan drafted in 2015 with the assistance of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) that set a target of 14 percent reduction in emissions by 2035. One percent to be done on a national level and 13 percent dependent on international support.

“One of the most important sectors is the Ministry of Electricity,” said Jassim al-Falahi, technical deputy of Iraq’s environment ministry who is involved in preparing the climate change strategy. Measures range from switching to LED lightbulbs in government buildings to investments in solar energy projects. 

The government has set a goal of producing 20 gigawatts from solar by 2030. Falahi said they are also drafting a law to regulate renewable energy, a sector that has been overlooked in Iraq, where oil is king. The law should be completed in about six months. 

Iraq’s accession to the Paris accord is also binding on the Kurdistan Region. 

“The Kurdistan Regional Government is committed to the environmental protection of the region and is generally committed to the international environmental agreements signed and ratified by the Republic of Iraq,” said Abdulrahman Sadiq, head of the Kurdistan Region’s Environment Board. He called for better coordination between Erbil and Baghdad on environmental policy.

Baghdad and Erbil need to act fast, as fields are already drying up and salting over.

“In Iraq’s case, a lot of climate-related damage is already locked in, and no manner of reining in emissions now can prevent an awful lot of human suffering. For these people, adaptive efforts will be required to help them cope with the trauma of disappearing livelihoods and of a deteriorating quality of life,” said Peter Schwartzstein, an independent environmental journalist and fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. 
 
Back on the farm outside of Kifri, the family gathers for lunch. Women lay out plastic sheets and cushions on the concrete courtyard, calling in playing children to sit where, minutes earlier, the family patriarch had said his prayers. As we spoon white bean soup and chunks of tender meat onto rice, a chicken strays into the yard looking for a snack, but it’s chased out by one of the children and the family shares a laugh.
 
I ask Salah what kind of future he envisions for the children as his fields turn to dust. “Our only hope is God,” he replies. 

(Cover Photo: Soran Mohammed, Kirkuk, 2020)

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