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As the world prepares for the COP26 summit in the UK, it is important that communities affected by conflict are not overlooked by climate action. In our latest article exploring the link between climate change, the environment and conflict, we focus on some of the issues facing the people of southern Iraq.

What images come to mind when you think of the war in Iraq? A razed town. A grieving family. Soldiers patrol the streets.

What about dozens of dead palm trees? Or an arid swamp? Maybe not what you would immediately associate with war.

Yet they are indicative of the devastating damage the conflict has inflicted on the environment in southern Iraq.

“War can weaken the environment and disrupt lives long after the guns have fallen silent,” said Igor Malgrati, ICRC regional advisor for water and habitat.

“In southern Iraq you have an environment that has been damaged by years of conflict, mismanagement of the environment and bad governance. When you add climate change to the mix, you get the perfect storm. ”

A marked landscape

The Iraqi Marshes are a wetland with a unique ecosystem at the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

In the early 1990s, these marshes were voluntarily drained in retaliation against a population considered to be rebellious.

By 2001, about 90 percent of the marshes had disappeared (UNEP), resulting in biodiversity loss and large-scale displacement.

If you go even further back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, iconic date palms were cut down for military purposes in places like Fao, south of Basra.

“There were more than 30 million palm trees before the Iran-Iraq war, today there are less than half of them,” said Adel Al-Attar, ICRC advisor for water and habitat, of Basra.

“Conflict, neglect, salinity of the soil, there are several reasons which have contributed to their loss. It is deeply moving. The whole atmosphere has changed since we lost the palm trees.

“It’s not just about fruit. They give shade to certain cultures. The sheets are used to make furniture like chairs and beds. No palm trees means no business. So people left the land and settled in the cities to find work. “

The loss of palm trees and the drying up of swamps are visible reminders of the direct damage the war has inflicted on the environment in southern Iraq.

Less visible, but arguably more damaging, are the indirect consequences of war, whether in Iraq or elsewhere.

For example, conflict will often weaken a government’s ability to manage natural resources, the environment and infrastructure.

Remnants of war, such as unexploded weapons or landmines, can render land unusable and harm wildlife, while amps for people uprooted by conflict put additional pressure on the environment.

Enter climate change

Average temperatures in Iraq have risen by at least 0.7 ° C over the past century, while extreme heat is more and more frequent. Precipitation is on a slight downward trend in the south-eastern part of the country.

The average annual temperature is expected to increase by 2 ° C by 2050, while the average annual precipitation is expected to decrease by 9% (World Bank Group).

“I have lived in Basra my whole life,” Al-Attar said. “As a boy, the summer temperature never exceeded 40 ° C in the summer. Today, it can exceed 50 ° C.

Sand or dust storms have also increased dramatically in frequency, largely due to land degradation.

Between 1951 and 1990, there were an average of 24 days per year of dust storms in Iraq, up from 122 in 2013 (UN). Again, projections suggest they are likely to increase.

“When there is not enough rain or vegetation, the top layers of the earth become less compact, which means that the chances of dust storms or sandstorms increase,” Al-Attar said.

“These weather events are contributing to desertification. The fertile soil turns into a desert.

Historically fertile areas of southern Iraq are disappearing, according to local authorities. In Fao, arable land increased from 7.5 km² to 3.75 km², while in Thi Qar, it increased from 100 km² to only 12.5 km².

Desertification in the south has decimated the agricultural sector, which once employed a significant portion of the population.

When people cannot depend on the land for their livelihoods, they migrate to urban areas like Basra or Najaf in search of jobs.

For example, the population of the port city of Fao has grown from 400,000 to 50,000 in four decades as people move to the big cities.

“The future is emigration,” Al-Attar said. “It hurts to see the younger generation leaving rural areas to work in unskilled jobs in urban areas or in the oil fields.

“There are not enough jobs for them in these sectors. Unemployment is high, as are tensions, which does not bode well for recovery and stability.

Too much salt

Another major problem that weakens the environment is soil and water salinity, which has long been a common problem in Iraq. But in the south, the situation is worsening for several reasons.

More than 50% of the water used in Iraq comes from Turkey, Syria and Iran. Regional and national water management practices have resulted in a decrease in water reaching southern Iraq in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In addition, the rivers flow through one of the driest areas in the region. Evaporation, although not the primary factor, plays a role in increasing salinity.

When the water levels of these rivers drop, seawater rises higher into the Shatt Al Arab estuary and into the irrigation canals used for agriculture and ranching.

“The salinity of water and soil is bad for crops, bad for animals, bad for people,” said Malgrati.

“When you add this problem to the high levels of other pollutants present, then it is a real danger to public health.”

In 2018, more than 100,000 people in Basra governorate were hospitalized with symptoms related to poor water quality (Human Rights Watch).

A call for support

The ICRC has spent more than a decade working in southern Iraq to help people access safe drinking water, among other activities.

Today its work focuses on the northern regions of the country, which have experienced more intense conflict in recent years, but the ICRC continues to support the Iraqi Red Crescent in southern Iraq.

Last year, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society launched a program to install eight solar-powered reverse osmosis water treatment units, helping around 20,000 people access water. drinkable. The ICRC provides financial and technical support.

“These units remove the salinity from the water so people don’t have to buy clean water,” Al-Attar said.

“It is an expensive process and the capacity is limited, but water is scarce so it is necessary.”

Helping communities around the world adapt to climate change is crucial. However, currently the bulk of climate finance supports efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital, but these efforts must be complemented by helping communities adapt to climate and environmental change so that they can face current and future risks,” said Catherine -Lune Grayson, ICRC policy advisor on climate change and conflict. .

“For now, although they are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, countries in conflict are among the most neglected by climate finance, and in particular, adaptation finance. This must change.

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