The garden of Eden is said to have existed somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates, in Iraq. Over the past two centuries, foreign adventurers came to marvel at the waterways and marshes immortalised in the Epic of Gilgamesh, with their water buffalo, wild boar, otters, pelicans, flocks of fowl and even lions running wild and free. In 2016, it was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site. That garden is now in grave peril, but it is not too late.
As world leaders gather in Dubai for Cop28, we have a duty to engage in collective action against a looming threat. For most of the nations of the Middle East, including Iraq, climate change will become, within our lifetimes, the greatest challenge. A sharp rise in temperatures, lack of rainfall, rapid decline in arable lands, drought, desertification, radically altered eco-systems and mass climate migration will be near-term realities if concerted steps toward long term solutions are not taken today. Extreme weather events in Iraq have already brought about severe economic challenges, including local pockets of increased poverty levels and greater social fragility.
Let’s be clear. The negative impacts of climate change cannot be addressed in isolation, nor with quick fixes. Neither will foreign countries come to our rescue. Yet, I know we can make a difference and achieve desired outcomes. This starts with Iraq’s full participation in efforts to reduce the effects of climate change through full engagement in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. Because the previous Iraqi regime cared little about the environment, Iraq is a latecomer to the UNFCCC, but we are eager to make up for lost time. We have, therefore, ratified the Paris Accord, and submitted the Nationally Determined Contribution it calls for. While western nations can set aside domestic environmental policies during economic downturns, Iraq does not have the luxury of picking and choosing when the rules apply.
We are implementing policies to help us mitigate climate change and better adapt to its impact while seeking to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The elements of such policies are well known: greater diversification of the economy, a focus on sustainability and increased reliance on clean and renewable sources of energy. Concretely, for example, Iraq’s Ministry of Oil intends to reduce gas flaring and adopt combined-cycle generators to increase efficiency. International investment in emerging markets like Iraq can also help by taking environmental impact into account.
For Iraq, the direct threats of climate change are only half the picture. Iraq’s economy largely relies on fossil fuel exports, and will be harshly impacted by climate change indirectly as the world economy reduces its dependence on those fuels. This is the case for all its Gulf neighbours – the member states of the GCC and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
With this in mind, Iraq calls on its Gulf neighbours to form a co-ordinated negotiating group within the UNFCCC process in order to speak with a united voice and reach decisions that better reflect our concerns as a region. Similar arrangements in other regions have proved successful. Consider the Independent Association of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, which was born out of Cop18 in Doha in 2012, and whose impact on drafting of the Paris Agreement in 2015 was noteworthy. Beyond the negotiations, the group could provide the seed for a regional agency that promotes co-operation on climate issues among all Gulf countries, along the lines of the Regional Organisation For The Protection of The Marine Environment, based in Kuwait.
Then there is the question of water shortages. All Gulf countries are water-stressed, but nowhere in the Gulf region is the lack of water more apparent than in the marshes of southern Iraq. What was once an aquatic wonderland rich in wildlife is now dry and parched, leading to the loss of livelihoods and a notable increase in internal displacement and migration. Multiple factors are behind the reduction of water flow to the marshes, ranging from inefficient irrigation and water management practices to reduced inflow from neighbouring countries (Iran, Turkey and Syria) because of upstream dams. Iraq is a downstream country, and dam construction by upstream neighbours has resulted in the loss of close to half of its total inflow compared to just a few years ago.
Negotiators must consider the concerns and rights of downstream countries as they deal with water and its equitable distribution. Interestingly, it is on the shores of the river Tigris, where our ancestors more than 4,500 years ago drafted the Treaty of Miselim, the first international agreement to share water resources. The international community now seeks to emulate this on a global level through a group of agreements, the latest of which is the Agreement on the Protection and Sustainable Use of Transient Waters.
The objectives outlined above may seem difficult to achieve. Yet there is hope, as I have seen Iraq’s southern marshes come back to life after the necessary action was taken. Recall that in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s regime accelerated the drainage of the marshes in a campaign described then by Max van der Stoel, a former Dutch foreign minister and UN rapporteur on human rights in Iraq, as the “environmental crime of the century”. Of course, Saddam Hussein’s regime did not care about the environment. Not only did it not adhere to the UNFCCC, it did not adhere to the Convention on Biodiversity, the Convention to Combat Desertification nor the Ramsar Convention on wetlands that would have protected the marshes.
What gives me hope is that in the years following the end of the former regime, through the concerted efforts of the Iraqi government, civil society and the international community, the marshes recovered up to 75 per cent of their former surface area at one stage, leading to a remarkable revival of the fauna and the flora and, in some measure, the return of their previously displaced inhabitants. I saw that first hand as the country’s minister of water resources. I am proud of what we achieved at the time. We will have reason to feel even greater pride once we engage fully, and collectively, to address the much broader challenge of climate change.