by Austin Michael Bodetti. He researches the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He traveled to Iraq in the summer of 2016.
The sudden onset of the Iraqi Civil War in 2014 prompted diplomats, generals, and politicians across the international community to debate how they might prevent the return of militancy to a country that has long dominated global headlines. Many of these discussions focused on well-worn topics such as counterterrorism, interfaith dialog, and peacebuilding. However, these conversations never touched on the pivotal role of environmental issues in the Iraqi Civil War. Water scarcity in particular contributed to sparking one of the twenty-first century’s most persistent episodes of sectarian violence.
The relationship between political violence and environmental issues in Iraq goes back decades. In the most notorious example, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein opted to drain much of the Mesopotamian Marshes to weaken a rebellion by Shia militants challenging his rule there in the 1990s. This controversial strategy not only instigated a humanitarian crisis for the region’s inhabitants but also exacerbated water scarcity in the south of Iraq. The problem only grew worse with start of the Iraq War.
“Over the last decade, the water distribution system has steadily deteriorated, due mainly to a lack of spare parts and maintenance”, concluded a 2003 environmental impact assessment conducted by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). “As a consequence, the amount of water available for distribution has fallen by more than half, and much of the remaining resource never reaches the final consumer because of leakages. Furthermore, the rivers that most Iraqis rely on for their water are increasingly contaminated with raw sewage, as waste treatment plants fall into disrepair”.
From the ISIS crisis and the military operation [against the jihadi group], we had nearly three million internally displaced people (IDPs). But we are expecting four million displaced people over the next eight years from the water crisis. This is no longer just an environmental problem, this affects security: social security, water security, food security. This will impact several governorates and will become an Iraq-wide, region-wide, even global problem. — Yousif Muayed Youssef, Iraqi Environment Ministry official, cited in Bel Trew, “Iraq Water Shortages Could Force Four Million People to Flee Their Homes“, The Independent, 09.10.2018.
Sunni insurgents moved to exploit the neglect felt by the inhabitants of drought-stricken regions. Prior to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), Sunni militants distributed humanitarian aid to Iraqi farmers during droughts in a bid to sway public opinion. The tactics complemented the insurgents’ wider strategy of appealing to Sunnis experiencing marginalization at the hands of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Many of the militants’ recruits came from Iraqi regions suffering from water scarcity.
ISIS soon swept across Iraq’s east and north. These regions happened to contain much of Iraq’s farmland, forcing the country to import 70 percent of its food until as late as 2017, the year of ISIS’s defeat in the Battle of Mosul. Given the role that water scarcity played in fueling ISIS’s rise, policymakers are now studying how the environmental movement might prevent ISIS’s return.
“Water has always been related to security and stability in Iraq,” observed a report by the Planetary Security Initiative at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael. “In the past, water has repeatedly been instrumentalised for political purposes, it played a role in jihadist recruitment for Islamic State, and has been weaponised during the recent violent conflicts. The water crisis decreases food production, threatens the country’s electricity supplies and contributes to migration trends, all of which are significant threats in the current fragile post-conflict setting in Iraq.”
Observers have already noted warning signs that water could lead to another conflict in Iraq. In September 2018, thirteen demonstrators protesting a lack of drinking water in Basra died in clashes with the Iraqi Security Forces. That same month, protesters also burned the buildings of several government agencies in addition to torching the Iranian consulate in Basra. The Institute for the Study of War even predicted that the protests over water were laying the groundwork for “an intra-Shia civil war”.
The international community can take several steps to support Iraq in addressing water scarcity and mitigating the effects of global warming on militancy in the country. As a powerful intergovernmental organization with an impressive history in Iraq, the UN must take the lead in helping Iraq plan a response to climate change. For their part, developed countries can contribute to the UN’s efforts.
The process has already begun. In 2015, the UN Development Program (UNDP), established the Funding Facility for Stabilization to assist Iraq with “rehabilitating water and sewage systems, roads, and bridges” in thirty-one locations retaken from ISIS throughout the country’s east and north. “In the case of Mosul, the Facility is contracting the local private sector to rebuild grids from the bottom-up and connect households as quickly as possible to the electricity, water, and sewage networks,” Hugo de Vries, a stabilization specialist for UNDP in Iraq, said of the aid agency’s work. “Public work crews are removing rubble and upgrading public buildings. Tens of thousands of Muslawis are working on stabilization initiatives—receiving income and spending it on essentials in the local market.”
Since 2004, only a year after the start of the Iraq War, Iraq and the UNEP have been coordinating the critical restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes, which the UNEP described as “the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East”, by promoting sustainable development with support from Italy and Japan. Iraq’s wealthy neighbors in the Persian Gulf can bankroll the expansion of these efforts.
The United States, the country that enjoyed the most sway in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 and one whose military still maintains a presence there, can cooperate with its Middle Eastern ally on the scientific front. The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Intelligence Community have spent years analyzing climate change as a threat to international security. By taking advantage of well-developed channels for intelligence sharing with Iraq, American intelligence agencies and military branches can ensure that their Iraqi counterparts have a strategy for fighting global warming and the militancy that it causes.
In addition to collaborating with its Arab and Western allies, Iraq can look to what other countries in the Muslim world have done. In Indonesia, activists, clerics, and gurus have defined environmentalism as a religious obligation for all Muslims. Taking a similar approach in Iraq could facilitate a countrywide response to climate change and promote unity among Iraq’s fractious Shias and Sunnis.
When families returning to their homes in #Iraq needed water storage, we made sure the large tanks got where they were needed by delivering them house to house! #WhatWeDidin2018 pic.twitter.com/fcQc3wGlJg
— Medair Middle East (@Medair_ME) 30. Dezember 2018
Civil society should represent the last component of a comprehensive Iraqi response to climate change. International NGOs and their Iraqi partners have the decades-old infrastructure necessary to alleviate water scarcity in some of Iraq’s remotest regions. Medair, an aid agency headquartered in Switzerland, noted on Twitter that it had spent 2018 going house to house to deliver water tanks to Iraqi families. Other aid agencies should follow Medair’s example.
If Iraq partners with civil society and the international community, these forces can devise an approach to curbing the effects of climate change that not only embraces environmentalism but also ends the relationship between global warming and militancy. The UN, the U.S., and the rest of the international community must assist Iraq with the challenging task of environmental peacebuilding.
- Peter Schwartzstein, “Iraq’s Famed Marshes Are Disappearing—Again“, National Geographic News, 09.07.2015.
- Peter Schwartzstein, “Climate Change and Water Woes Drove ISIS Recruiting in Iraq“, National Geographic News, 14.11.2017.
- Bel Trew, “Boiling Basra: Residents Are Afraid of Their Taps as Iraq’s Water Crisis Threatens to Destabilise the Region“, The Independent, 01.10.2018.