06 July 2021

Planetary Security Initiative holds the first-ever climate security dialogue in South Iraq

In June, the Planetary Security Initiative (PSI) team of the Clingendael Institute, together with the Netherlands Embassy to Iraq and the local partner Ozon, organized its first hybrid workshop in Basra, Iraq. The workshop - “Fostering Climate Security and Environmental Cooperation in South Iraq” aimed to address the impact of climate change on stability in Iraq, primarily in the South, a topic that has not yet been extensively discussed, particularly not among representatives from NGOs, government and academic experts from the region. They now gathered to discuss the impacts of water stresses and desertification as two major climate-related security threats. Speakers reflected on solutions, ongoing efforts and best practices.

The hybrid workshop consisted of three sessions and included more than 60 participants from the region, who took account of the prevailing rules to prevent the spread of Covid-19. A live stream with real-time translation into English was established and offered to a selected group of interested partners to keep the meeting informal. 

Dr. Waleed Al Musawi, from the South Environment Directorate and Dr. Naif Azeez from the University of Basra and Nissan Institute for Democratic Awareness shared with the audience the efforts their respective institutions are undertaking to mitigate the impacts of climate change through tackling environmental degradation, raising awareness and exploring avenues of collaboration with various local actors. According to them, the topic is still relatively neglected and therefore there’s a need to fostering collaboration between governmental and non-governmental bodies. Dr. Naif Azeez stressed the importance of supporting the efforts of civil society. He called on the local government in Basra to monitor the pollution caused by the oil industry as one of the main drivers of hydrocarbon pollution in the South that is also severely affecting the climate.

A panel discussion on the impact of climate change and water stresses on stability in South Iraq focused on the diverse stresses of water scarcity and pollution. These two major factors of water problems are closely connected to disturbing livelihoods and damaging the economy. Speakers from the Basra Water Resource Directorate, the University of Basra and civil society organization Humat Dijlah discussed the impacts of pollution and transboundary water conflicts on the challenges they face while working on water issues in Iraq. For example, Dr. Najah Abood from the Ecology Department at the University of Basra, touched upon the importance of setting up better water management policies with Iraq’s neighbours such as Iran and especially for the Shatt Al Arab river, since any water issue affecting this river will also have consequences on the northern west Gulf Countries. For instance, the harm it will cause to fisheries is a cause for concern, since it is one of the major food supplies of the region. 

Dr. Wassan Sabih of the University of Basra stated that the severity of the problem in Basra has required collaboration between specialized governmental institutions and academic researchers. Recently, the amount of exchange between academic experts and government institutions is growing and she sees a lot of value in this cooperation to serve the city. Yet, the challenges are so big that increasing expertise is needed to be put to use. For instance, saltwater is intruding the region and now becoming closer to the city of Basra. If this development continues, a life-threatening situation can emerge for many of the 2 million inhabitants that live in the city of Basra. 

On the role of civil society, Naseer Baqer from Humat Dijlah talked about their willingness to expand partnerships with the government, and garner enough support from local authorities to activate the Protection and Improvement law of the Environment in Iraq. Commenting on the challenges of civil society working on environmental issues in Iraq, beyond the financial challenges and the limited number of NGOs working on climate change or environmental challenges, Naseer mentioned the lack of connection with decision-makers who can actually turn civil society recommendations into policies. In other words, it is challenging to make environmental issues a priority for decision-makers which makes environmental NGOs’ work even more difficult. 

Another discussion centred upon the relationship between desertification, deterioration of livelihoods and internal displacement. Largely due to climate change, Iraq loses 250 square kilometres of arable land per year, according to a recent report by the UN. This means more than 5 billion dollars are lost every year. The impact of this issue on stability is most evident in the southern part of the country where farmers have been forced to leave their land and emigrate to cities, causing more pressure on the water and energy infrastructures and supplies, according to Dr. Nadwa Hilal and Dr. Shukri Al Hassan from the University of Basra.

Dr. Hashim Sarhan from the General Secretariat of Shiite Holy Shrines shared good practices on combating desertification that are initiated by the Shiite Endowment in Iraq. Approximately 5 000 000 square meters of land were restored through planting mainly palm and fruit trees. This project has a major impact on reducing desertification. In the Al Saqi project, the Shiite Endowment invested in digging irrigation wells in 150 000 square meters. More than 50 wells were established in that area for irrigation and drinking water. The Al Saqi project aims to provide for the national water grid when there is a water crisis. Another part of the Al Saqi project is investing in cultivating different kinds of vegetables in 25 000 square meters that are now providing the local markets in the cities around it. Similar efforts are undertaken in the Fadak Farm project. Besides combating desertification, these projects provide employment to the local youth; they provided relative stability to the cities where the youth were protesting for jobs, according to Dr. Sarhan. 

Another good practice is a local greening campaign started in 2017 and led by Muhammed Falih an agricultural engineer at Basra Oil Company. This campaign managed to reach most of Basra’s neighbourhoods and encouraged locals to plant trees in their gardens and streets. Although the scale of the campaign is relatively small, it managed to spread awareness among locals on the importance of protecting arable land. 

Dr. Ahmed Al Hassan from the University of Basra has extensively addressed the Iraq climate and how it has been changing for a while. The heatwaves and droughts that Iraq is witnessing are expected to continue or become more extreme, therefore, there’s an urgent need to strengthen our response and take actual steps towards adaptation. Mahdi Al Temimi from the High Commission for Human Rights -Basra, addressed the issue of water pollution that is closely linked to water shortage due to droughts and consecutive heat weaves. Together with Dr. Nadwa Hilal, speakers shared facts on the saltwater intrusion impacting the livelihoods of locals in southern Basra and how this is disrupting stability in big cities.

Representatives from the Directorate of Water Resource, Jumaa’a Dhidan and Directorate of Agriculture in Basra, Ali Salem, highlighted the progress and challenges their institutions' are undertaking to combat water shortage and desertification. One of the main challenges impacting the quality and quantity of the Shatt Al Arab is the insufficient water release from upstream and neighbouring countries. 

The Netherlands Ambassador to Iraq Michel Rentenaar in previous capacities has been Climate Envoy and Representative to NATO. He shared his insights on the multiple threats that climate change poses to stability in Iraq:

“The effects of climate change are quite bad, and everyone who lives in the south of Iraq can see this on a daily basis. How the desert is growing and how it’s pushing farmers off their lands, and how it’s forcing migration to the city”

Rentenaar also indicated that a strained farming system and internal displacement due to climate change is increasing the pressure on providing enough jobs in Iraq where 70% of its population is under 30 years old. This means tens of thousands of young people enter the labour market every year and will have to face the realities of a changing climate on their future. 

Louise van Schaik of Clingendael and PSI discussed the importance of joining forces and sharing expertise to help set up plans that could contribute to better adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change on stability in Iraq. 

“We see climate change not only as a security risk or threat but above all as an opportunity to cooperate, to work together to combat saltwater intrusion, plant trees, install renewable energy and set up climate-smart irrigation” 

The PSI team members, Louise van Schaik, Tobias von Lossow and Maha Yassin also announced the PSI’s intention to facilitate an informal network of stakeholders that gathers the local government, NGOs and academia to engage in dialogue and awareness-raising campaigns on how climate change undermines security in Iraq, and what could be done to counter such impacts. The network aims to link climate change to peacebuilding dialogues and efforts. 

Watch explainer on PSI efforts to foster climate security dialogue in south Iraq: 

Watch full dialogue event (Arabic):