Decline of the Fertile Crescent: Climate risks and opportunities in Iraq

Why Iraq is losing the battle against climate risks, and how it can fight back.

Two mighty rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris wind through Iraq watering its farms and fields. The Mesopotamian region centred on Iraq was known as the Fertile Crescent thanks to these twin rivers. Now the river levels dwindle ever lower, while the Arabian desert has eaten ever further into Iraq’s productive land. Climate change, ever growing demands on water and desertification have taken a heavy toll on the country.

Below, I look at how a fast-changing climate threatens Iraq’s economy and society and how it will intensify conflict and increase migration. I also consider how Iraq act to prevent these problems overwhelming the country.

New Extremes

Iraq is highly vulnerable to physical climate risks. Rated as the 5th most vulnerable country to climate change Iraq has long experienced extreme heat, but recent years have seen this pushed further, with temperatures in the mid 40 to 50 C becoming the norm. Heatwaves at this level wreak havoc on society. The high temperatures evaporate water, melt roads and make everyday tasks impossible.

While many buildings enjoy air conditioning, the heat threatens power infrastructure and could result in widespread blackouts which can knock out air conditioning, one of the few options available to relieve the heat.

The heat also damages Iraqi agriculture, destroying even the hardiest crops and drying out water sources. Daily human life becomes impossible in such extreme temperatures, schools must close, people need to shelter from the heat during the day and night-time temperatures make sleep uncomfortable.

Sandstorms are also increasing in intensity and in number. Sandstorms force people inside, ground flights and imped daily life. Over ten thousand people have been hospitalized as result in 2022 alone.

These climate risks will worsen over time and Iraq will be faced by long periods of extreme heat. The country will face lower agricultural yields and widespread water scarcity. Worse of all Iraq is already fragile, a tinderbox beset by violence, ethno-religious tensions and scarred by years of war with several competing factions vying for power.

Climate risks will magnify existing problems:

  • Migration is likely to increase as dispossessed farmers unable to grow crops will flock to cities increasing the number of urban poor. City heat islands, extreme heat in cities makes them increasingly unliveable – the wealthy and poor alike may try to migrate abroad in search of cooler climes.
  • State failure: the compounding and intertwining crises could result in the breakdown of central authority and embolden extremist groups such as ISIS to carve up the country as the Baghdad government is unable to assert control.

Iraq and Oil and Climate

Iraq’s major export is oil. The country is the 5th biggest producer in the world with around 145 billion barrels in proven reserves. Despite conflict induced interruptions oil has fed the state’s treasury for many years. While oil demand remains high, it is expected to peak in the next few years as renewables begin to scale up across the globe.

Iraq can use its oil revenue to shift to a renewable energy future, but the pressures of funding services, government wages and all the other costs of running a country mean that the Government will struggle to transition to a low carbon economy.

Iraqi oil is also under threat from underinvestment. Mismanagement, conflict, and corruption have made Iraqi oil more expensive. Western oil majors have increasingly pulled out of the country as the cost of doing business increased.  

Chinese firms stepped in when Western competitors have fled. Thanks to Chinese investments and deep reserves Iraq could be an oil producer for years to come. However, it will come under increasing pressure to cut production and decarbonise its economy as the rest of the world steps away from fossil fuels.

The Wider Geopolitical Context

Strategic location is an overused term in geopolitics, but Iraq stands at the centre of the Middle East, with Iran to the East and bordering other states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Any instability in Iraqi can easily spread over borders. This could be in the form of extremist groups, refugees or environmental disasters.

Iraq’s twin rivers the Euphrates and Tigris that originate from Turkey and Iran have already fallen 30 percent in volume since 1980. Dams in Turkey and Iran have cut the flow of water Iraq. Each drop of water used in Turkey or Iran is one less for Iraqis. If as expected the flow of water falls further the tensions between these neighbours could facture further.

How can Iraq fight back against climate risks?

Climate change may seem overwhelming, but Iraq can take action to mitigate and adapt:

Iraq has amazing solar energy potential. Ample sunshine and wide open desert spaces make it ideal for siting solar panels. Switching to solar energy would decarbonise Iraq’s economy and potentially create a new source of export revenue.

Water shortages are coming, but further action to use water more efficiently and infrastructure such as desalination plants could alleviate the problem. Modern irrigation techniques such as drip and feed could also reduce water use.

Desertification has taken swathes of formerly fertile land in Iraq. Desertification is both a cause and a driver of climate change. But planting trees, restoring ecosystems and fighting back against the creeping desert can cool the country down. In a similar vein encouraging trees and vegetation in cities can drastically cool urban areas as well as making them more attractive places to live.

These measures are easy to state, but the missing link is political will. Iraq remains trapped in a cycle of dependency on oil and political instability with little capacity to deal with climate risks. As a result the next decade will be extremely challenging for Iraq.

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