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Post-conflict Iraq’s environmental challenges inflamed by neglect and corruption have significant effects on the population’s quality of life.
Dina M. Abdulrazzaq
The 2003 invasion of Iraq has drastically altered the country on many levels. The post-war urban identity of the country was not spared. As part of Fanack’s ongoing analysis of the MENA region, this article will outline Iraq’s ecology crisis and its impact on water, climate, and quality of life.
Pollution across Iraq has been exacerbated by neglect and corruption during more than three decades of conflict.
Various types of chemical and biological pollutants have accumulated in the different ecosystems of the country. The high levels of pollution now threaten the sustainability and the safety of these ecosystems and the country’s natural resources.
For years, the magnitude of the serious environmental problems has been ignored, and the challenges they pose on the population’s livelihood have been trivalized. This, consequently, resulted in the degradation of ecosystems, deterioration of agricultural lands, and accumulation of waste. Moreover, this neglect has resulted in widespread pollution in the air, water, and land, with failing sewage systems largely contributing to contaminated water finding its way into the country’s waterways.
This article discusses the various environmental challenges in Iraq and their impact on the quality of life.
The environment in Iraq has been grappling with a series of challenges that began decades ago, as a result of the previous regime’s lack of interest in environmental preservation, followed by the Iraq-Iran war (1988-1980).
The draining of the marshes, the destruction of palm groves, the burning of oil wells, and the pollution of the environment that followed the 1991 war are a few of the human tragedies and environmental disasters that the war wrought. In addition to the UN’s blockade of Iraq and its citizens.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 added to the devastation, as the chaos that ensued, along with the subsequent civil war in 2006, resulted in the destruction of critical infrastructure, including health, municipal, agricultural, educational, and industrial facilities.
While significant efforts were made to repair and rebuild the country post-invasion, these endeavors faced challenges such as limited resources, insecurity, and corruption, leading to the oversight of many environmental issues, including pollution caused by the conflicts.
The slow process of recovery came to a sudden halt, in 2013, when ISIS terrorist groups took over vast areas of Iraq, murdering civilians, sabotaging and destroying oil wells, industrial and oil facilities, buildings, and infrastructure. Years of intense fighting followed, having a negative effect on urban areas, while ISIS used scorched earth tactics to destroy natural resources in their retreat.
Several sources were used to compile the article’s data. The analysis was carried out via research, analysis, and comparison of information from books, scientific journals, newspapers, and government publications, as well as research from organizations with ties to the subject matter. The research was, additionally, supported by publicly accessible data regarding the present state of affairs in Iraq and firsthand queries from residents there.
Reasons and Impacts
Iraq has been ranked as the fifth-most climate-vulnerable nation. Vast areas of Iraq are now suffering from desertification. Baghdad and most Iraqi cities are experiencing environmental change as a result of the country’s widespread environmental neglect. Climate change has brought forth one of Iraq’s primary challenges – drought, leading to a surge in dust and sandstorms that now pelt Iraqi cities regularly.
Furthermore, air pollution levels have risen as a result of the increase in the burning of fossil fuels, the increase in cars, electric power generators, and other industrial activities. There are numerous other sources of pollution, including former Iraqi weapons factories from the previous regime, and the use of different types of weapons and ammunition during wars. Air pollution and the degradation of the atmosphere are on the rise, with no efforts to control the deterioration.
Due to a lack of precise statistics on pollution across the country, as well as the lack of the equipment and expertise needed by the authorities to track it, pollution has become a significant threat and a crisis, endangering the lives of residents in all communities.
The environmental challenges in Iraq can be classified into specific categories, based on their causes and risks:
Water pollution and scarcity
The MENA region is characterized by a dry climate with hotter weather, fewer rivers, and less rainfall than most other regions of the world. Iraq, on the other hand, is one of the most water-rich countries in the region due to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries.
Despite this natural advantage, millions of Iraqis, particularly in the southern regions of the country, continue to face challenges in accessing safe drinking water, and water scarcity remains a pressing issue for them.
For over 30 years, the Iraqi government has struggled to effectively manage and control the country’s water resources, leading to significant consequences for its citizens, particularly those in the southern governorates. Since the 1980s, consecutive failures of governments to control pollution and ongoing neglect and mismanagement of water infrastructures have caused a dangerous drop in water quality in these rivers.
However, a major factor behind Iraq’s water shortage is due to neighboring states’ actions toward Iraq, particularly Turkey. They interrupt the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, causing the country to lose almost 40% of its historic water supply.
Iraq’s water reserves are also being significantly impacted by desertification and decreased rainfall due to climate change.
As a result, numerous tributaries, lakes, and agricultural projects in southern Iraq dried up, after suffering from high levels of sewage, agricultural and industrial pollution, and water salinity. According to Human Rights Watch, this ongoing water mismanagement has led to a harmful algal bloom causing a health crisis in 2018 in the Basra governorate, which was largely ignored by the authorities.
Iraq’s dry climate with limited rainfall, especially in the central, southern, and western regions, presents challenges for the natural removal of air pollutants.
Significant demographic, urban, and economic developments in Iraqi cities have resulted in a decline in air quality, particularly in urban areas, due to a lack of legislation and oversight, as well as the state’s lack of concern for the environment.
Individual and group electric generators, which have spread widely in response to the regular blackouts across the country, stand out as Iraq’s most significant cause of air pollution. The rapid increase in vehicles also adds to the problem.
Furthermore, the people in Iraq have a long and dreadful history of using the environment as a weapon. For example, after the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s forces burned nearly 600 of Kuwait’s oil fields to cover their escape as they withdrew from the country in 1991. The fires burned over 1 billion barrels of oil and released 300 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that year, accounting for nearly 1.5% of global emissions.
Twenty years later, a large sulfur plant in the area was burned down by ISIS forces. Thick plumes of black and white smoke obscured the atmosphere of northern Iraq near Mosul, giving the scene an apocalyptic appearance visible from outer space.
This sulfur plant fire had severe consequences for the environment, wildlife, and human well-being, primarily due to the higher concentrations of sulfate. Sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of the burning process, can be lethal if inhaled in large enough amounts.
After that when the Iraqi military pursued ISIS in the city of Al-Qayyarah, the militants set fire to oil pipes in the town and flooded the streets with oil to cover their escape. The next day, UNICEF personnel arrived to find oil spilling into the Tigris River, the town’s primary source of potable water.
ISIS forces burned oil and oil fields in multiple instances during their skirmishes with the Iraqi military. Their fighters would fill trenches with crude oil and set them on fire in order to make it difficult for Iraqi warplanes, drones, and attack helicopters to locate and hit targets inside the city, with complete disregard for the after-effects of their actions.
Iraq produces approximately 31,000 tons of solid waste per day, with waste generation per capita reaching 1.4 kg per day. Baghdad alone generates over 1.5 million tons of solid waste annually, further straining an already compromised waste management system.
Municipal, medical, and commercial waste in Iraq has had hazardous health effects, leading to the spread of diseases due to improper collection and disposal practices, as well as a lack of environmental awareness among the population. Besides acting as breeding grounds for insects and other harmful vectors, their unpleasant odors and appearance degrade the cities they accumulate in.
According to several sources, the amount of rubble in Mosul alone as a result of ISIS terrorist attacks amounts to more than 10 million cubic meters, and transporting it outside the city would cost around 250 million dollars. Most waste is disposed of in unregulated landfills across Iraq, with little or no regard for human health or the environment.
Iraq’s biodiversity has deteriorated as a result of prolonged hostilities and the fragmentation of agricultural lands as they give way to industrial and urban areas.
Due to a history of sustained agricultural and industrial activity, as well as rising population density in riverine areas, biodiversity has suffered in the central plain and Baghdad region.
Unregulated hunting and harvesting of threatened species, trade in endangered species, uncontrolled development, and a lack of protection in many of Iraq’s most important biodiverse areas have all contributed to the serious degradation of the country’s biodiversity.
The loss of biodiversity in Iraq is due to
- Overhunting, including poisoning, electrocution, and explosives;
- High salinity in lakes and rivers;
- The introduction of invasive species and exotic fish and animals which negatively affects indigenous species;
- Ecological damage from waste, pollution and thermal emissions from power plants.
The situation can still be changed, offering a brighter future for the next generation, if climate action is wholeheartedly embraced by the nation’s leaders and its people.
Therefore, the Iraqi government must conduct all water discussions and climate-related agreements in good faith. For water infractions, discussions with Iraq’s neighbors are necessary. Iraq must engage in communication and negotiations with its neighbors to secure a fair distribution of water.
Moreover, the Iraqi government needs to take more action domestically to control competition for water. This could be accomplished by developing a framework for cooperation to guarantee equitable water distribution, possibly based on a clear and independently verifiable evaluation of the requirements of each district.
This should be coupled with upgrading and expanding water treatment facilities, restoring deteriorated water infrastructure, setting water use limits, and spending money on new irrigation equipment, water harvesting techniques, and creative irrigation practices.
Governments at all levels should launch efforts to educate the public about the dangers of climate change and the urgency of the situation in Iraq. Hence, every member of the public needs to make wiser decisions about everything they do, including what they eat, how they travel, how they save energy and water, and what they purchase.
Furthermore, engaging the youth, who make up more than half of Iraq’s population, in climate-related concerns since school age improves the effectiveness of any attempt to rescue Iraq by raising awareness about waste, encouraging recycling, and other good environmental practices.
Last but not least, efforts to reduce costs and hazardous emissions will undoubtedly be aided by achieving zero gas flaring and concurrently developing renewable energy sources, such as wind, hydro, and solar energy, which is abundant and cost-effective due to strong sunlight for the majority of the year.
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