04 May 2021
  • Iraq
  • climate change adaptation

Iraq's Growing Desertification Problem

Iraq suffers from several adverse impacts of climate change, including declining precipitation rates and sea level rise. These conditions give rise to many phenomena, with desertification among them. Desertification is a consequence of land degradation in a semi-arid climate area, which is caused mostly by human activities and climatic changes. Recent reports showed that the rate of desertification increased to 39% of Iraq’s land and 54% is under threat. The Iraqi climate is dry or semi-dry with less than 150mm of rain per year and high evaporation rates. Precipitation which falls outside of domestic borders is the main source of water for Iraq, where 80% of water comes from Turkey. This excessive reliance rate, mismanagement of water, inefficient farming practices, and already dry climate makes it vulnerable to climate change and the whims of its’ neighbors. Statistically, Iraq loses around 100 square kilometers annually from its arable lands as a consequence of desertification.

The major causes of desertification in Iraq are both natural and human. The natural causes include factors such as droughts, increases in temperature and erosion, and salinization of the soil. Iraq has a dry and semi-dry climate. Heat increases in the summer and can rise to well above 40 C with the average rate of evaporation rising significantly. The human causes include human population growth, which results in an increase in consumption of natural resources, the uncontrolled felling of trees in forests which has caused declining numbers of palm trees, mismanagement of water, and incorrect farming practices. This has contributed to a drop in pasture area and declining productivity of cultivated land. The estimated cultivated lands decreased from 12.2% to 8.3% of the entire area of the country during the period 1970-2010. Another cause of this is the area taken by urban expansion caused by Iraq’s growing population. This was all accomplished at the expense of fertile agricultural lands. The rate of the urban population in Iraq has increased significantly. Researchers revealed that the Iraqi population jumped from 7,000,000 in 1960 to 39,000,000 in 2019, and it is continuing to increase.

Desertification has its economic consequences in Iraq at multiple levels. First, the diminishing productivity of agricultural land decreases domestic agricultural production. Second, the immigration of the residents of newly unproductive land to urban areas results in competition with the local population over resources and job opportunities. Third, the encroaching sands have a direct and severe effect on irrigation and development projects and threaten the extinction of many plant and animal species as well as changing their geographic distribution. In addition, there is an enormous financial burden on the government of recovering these lands. The estimated annual costs to protect and correct desertification depends on the degree of land deterioration. For example, lightly deteriorated river irrigated land costs $100 – $300 per hectare to be corrected, while very severely deteriorated river irrigated land costs $3000 – $5000 per hectare to be corrected. If left unaddressed, these effects can become potent security threats as already seen during the Islamic State insurgency. Reports suggest that the Islamic State deliberately targeted struggling farmers for recruitment.

Researchers have suggested some procedures to battle the human and natural cases of desertification. Starting with enhancing the preservation of natural resources and consuming them under correct scientific practices. This also comprises the development of sustainability legislation. Limiting immigration from rural areas to urban areas, and economic and social development will be important. All these procedures require national planning in collaboration with the international community. This requires building a computer database on the environment, climate, water resources, human activities, and economic changes. This information is vital to the researchers and decision-makers who track desertification. Using developed technologies such as remote sensing modelling and topsoil grain size index (GIS) techniques to monitor and assess environmental changes and desertification, will be vital.  On the implementation side, planting green belts to protect the soil and to limit the advance of the sands as well as using precise agriculture techniques to recover salinized land or re-cultivate degraded vegetation areas and water bodies are key. Finally, supporting scientific research in the areas of environmental protection and battling desertification will remain essential in seeking a long-term solution to the problem.


By Dr. Rana Alfardan- Southern Technical University, Basra, Iraq (ranaaziz@stu.edu.iq)

Photo Credit: Water Alternatives Photos/ Flickr