After more than 40 years of intermittent conflict, dictatorship, and foreign intervention, Iraq is riven with socio-economic crises, sectarian and ethnic tensions, and fraying social cohesion, some of which risk contributing to further violence. Since the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2017, however, Iraq has experienced few major hostilities, though the extremist group continues to terrorize certain areas. As job prospects and the quality of basic services have deteriorated, popular anger has spilled into protests against a political class and system that many Iraqis distrust and see as incapable of meeting the population’s needs. Global and regional geopolitical tussles are adding to the fragility of an increasingly tenuous-looking peace.
Against this backdrop, Iraq is experiencing some of the region’s most debilitating resource, climate, and environmental woes, which are exacerbating existing crises. Severe drought has compounded the failure of water supply services in the south. Extreme heat, which sometimes tops 50 C, is overtaxing an electricity network already unable to meet demand, repeatedly plunging millions into dangerous temperatures without relief. The combination of water shortages, climate change, and environmental degradation is directly threatening people’s lives and livelihoods and has helped to spur instability and mass mobilization, notably in Basra in 2018. Many Iraqis increasingly struggle with heat-related sickness or respiratory ailments as dust and sandstorms intensify. Farming and fisheries, the bedrocks of the rural economy and vital planks in the state’s bid to diversify away from the oil sector, are wavering in tougher conditions.
Between wildfires and infrastructure-eating floods in the north, and a particularly egregious water situation in the south, few people remain unaffected by these changes. Though the intensity and nature of environmental degradation vary across the country, these issues cut across sectarian, ideological, geographical, and socio-economic lines in ways that few other topics do. As a result, there are many opportunities for country-wide dialogue that can contribute to the peacebuilding efforts across Iraq.
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By Tobias von Lossow, Peter Schwartzstein & Hassan Partow