We know that the effects of climate change are worse on developing nations. Drought and water shortages curtail food supplies, make formerly well-populated landscapes uninhabitable, and force inhabitants to migrate due to increasingly unsustainable environments. The long-standing water crisis in Iraq is an example of what can result from a changing environment—and how a poorly administered water policy can make the lives of millions of people worse.
Where civilization may go to die
Climate change, in the words of a lengthy April 2022 Washington Post survey, is turning “the cradle of civilization” into a “grave.” In Iraq, yearly temperature averages are rising at a rate close to double that of the global average.
Long years of unusually intense heat waves and inadequate rainfall have resulted in ever greater dependence on the water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But those waters, which supply more than 90 percent of Iraq’s water, are also running dry. Experts note that projections show both rivers potentially drying up within the next few decades unless the world takes definitive action.
So different, not so long ago
Between these rivers, toward the south of Iraq, lies the historic and environmentally rich land of marshes that once covered about 7,000 square miles. These lands were once crisscrossed by deep waterways and wetlands and covered in thick growths of reeds. The whole area teemed with wildlife, including flocks of herons and other wading birds, as well as numerous songbirds. Some scholars believe that the marshes were the inspiration for descriptions of the Garden of Eden in the Bible.
For thousands of years, this abundance has supported tribal societies where people lived much as their ancestors did centuries ago, and where they were relatively isolated from the rest of the world until very recently.
British explorer Wilfred Thesiger loved this region. He spent years during the decade of the 1950s living among the Marsh Arabs, as Westerners traditionally called the local people. Thesiger’s classic 1964 non-fiction book The Marsh Arabs is based on his experiences. As he traveled the waterways and marshes by canoe and gained the trust of the inhabitants, they introduced him to their way of life on the small islands spread across the landscape.
Thesiger described these lands as “great swamps of bamboos and bullrushes,” and documented everything with sharply etched black-and-white photographs from his Leica camera.
A rude awakening to crisis
The landscape of these fabled lands has changed drastically even in the half-century since Thesiger’s time. Many women and children have moved to nearby metropolitan areas, while their men try to maintain their way of life in the marshes, even as fish become increasingly scarce and water buffalo herds die out. To make economic matters worse, the area’s once-thriving industry of buffalo milk production and export has been affected by the poor quality of the grass the animals feed on.
“There are no fish, no reeds, no life,” a local fisherman told journalists in 2021. If you go far across what remains of those once-fertile lands now, you quickly run up against the stark reality of baked ground and dried-up grasses and reeds.
Additional human-caused misery
It isn’t only climate change, though.
Because the Marsh Arabs are mostly Shi’a Muslims, and because they rebelled against the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein (in power from 1979 to 2003), they suffered persecution, oppression, torture, and execution during his regime. As a form of punishment, Hussein drained the marshes and built dikes to block the rivers from flowing into the wetlands, all of which helped prompt the exodus to the cities.
After Hussein fell from power, Iraq worked to restore the marshes and managed to build them back to about 75 percent of their pre-Hussein levels. But by 2015, the severe shortage of water flowing from the Tigris and Euphrates, along with the hotter climate overall, pushed the wetlands down to about 50 percent of what they once were.
Additionally, the construction of new dams in Turkey (where the Tigris and Euphrates originate) and Iran (which shares the large multi-river floodplain with Iraq and other countries) has been responsible for a reduction of about 60 percent in the rivers’ volume of water. All of the environmental factors discussed here lead scientists to conclude that the marshes will never regain their former lush, wild beauty or their ability to support a population of any size.
There’s also the fact that post-Hussein Iraq has shown little to no ability to systematically deliver adequate supplies of clean water to its people. Corruption, inattention, and failure to apply established engineering and public health protocols have led to situations like that in Basra, which came to a head in 2018. More than 100,000 people exhibited severe gastrointestinal symptoms traced to poor water sanitation. Yet the health ministry denied the problem and delayed acting in the public interest.
Dominoes stacked to fall
What does all this mean in the realm of international affairs? For one thing, Iraq is among the Middle Eastern countries whose food production systems are most fragile in terms of vulnerability to climate change, and therefore closest to collapse. Add in factors such as poor central governance, a burgeoning youth population, and continued pandemic-related stagnation, and you have a recipe for armed conflict over natural resources, increased migration, the formation of extremist paramilitary organizations, and the growth of terrorist movements—all already problems in Iraq.
As numerous policy experts have pointed out, climate change consistently raises the probability of war and political instability. This means that, like it or not, any real effort we put into solving Iraq’s water supply problems redounds to the benefit of everyone, everywhere.