The devastation caused by man to the environment is no longer a secret; nature is striking back painfully, after decades of warnings by scientists of a catastrophic future that requires quick, radical solutions. There is no more room for procrastination in the face of hurricanes, floods, rising temperatures, desertification, drying up of agricultural lands, forest fires, greenhouse gases and air pollution.
In recent years, the dangers of climate change top of the list of problems and preoccupations in most countries, whether in the first, second or third worlds. In the face of the wrath of nature, the borders separating countries are collapsing, with increasing rapidity in third world countries in particular. It is true that the catastrophic repercussions are affecting everyone, but the third world, including Arab states, bears the greatest burden. Not because the wrath of nature chooses it over America and Europe, of course, but for growing domestic and external reasons, through which disasters, whether natural or man-made, interact to increase the impact and size of any crisis affecting the people of the country.
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Iraq, along with Palestine, is a clear example of the environmental crisis resulting from war, occupation and neo-colonial policies in the Arab world, which undermine the social and economic basis of life in the region. The effects of this environmental crisis appear in devastating climate change, the pollution of extractive industries, the depletion of natural resources, the scarcity of water, and the pollution of air and soil due to the use of modern munitions, such as depleted uranium and white phosphorous, as has been seen in Iraq and Gaza. It is estimated that the war against Iraq caused the release of 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2003 and 2007. That's more than 60 per cent of the total for all countries in the world.
Despite the availability of this data and its documentation by international human rights organisations, and the fact that the internal environmental situation is largely linked to the outside world, Iraq remained, until recent months, at the bottom of government and public lists of concerns. It is hardly mentioned except on the margins of international conferences or among the lists of "worst" countries in reports and statistics issued by UN bodies and organisations concerned with the environment and its economic and societal repercussions. Only then does it rank in a high position that no one else matches.
Iraq is stable at the top of the most corrupt countries in the world, and it tops the list of the most corrupt Arab countries. Iraqi President Barham Salih is unable to cover the financial loss from corruption in the country over the years. Iraq has lost hundreds of billions of dollars, including $150 billion smuggled abroad through lucrative deals since 2003, a figure that seems smaller when the dinar and dollar are compared, and the word "trillions" comes into play.
Iraq is also among the most dangerous countries according to the security risk index, competing with Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and Afghanistan. This is based on the documentation of the war and information on terrorism, infighting, insurgencies and politically motivated unrest. It was also the second deadliest country for journalists in 2020, according to Reporters Without Borders. Once-beautiful Baghdad, with its ancient civilisation, is not spared from inclusion in the list of the least clean cities in the world due to the neglect of the reconstruction of the buildings and structures that the occupation destroyed, as well as the infrastructure, including the sewage system, roads, water drainage and power plants.
In a recent report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Iraq ranked fifth in the list of countries most affected by climate change and global warming. The repercussions can be summed up in the lack of water safe for drinking and irrigation, the indiscriminate use of groundwater, and the lack of water in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to the construction of dams upstream by Iran and Turkey, in violation of international agreements. This has caused agriculture to be abandoned and the displacement of rural populations to cities that were not prepared to receive them. The Norwegian Refugee Council declared last week that nearly half of the Iraqi population is in need of food assistance in the areas affected by drought.
Despite such evidence about climate and environmental change, and its repercussions on all aspects of life in Iraq, what passes for a government is still involved in corruption and fighting over the results of the recent election. At the same time, it boosts its media exposure by joining in the chorus of calls to protect the environment at international conferences, without ever taking any real action to do so itself. Iraq's Environment Minister, for example, spoke on the eve of the recent Glasgow Climate Summit about the catastrophic repercussions of climate change on food and water security. He failed to mention his government's shortcomings in the implementation of reform and development programmes to counter the impact of the crisis in Iraq.
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In order to understand the current environmental catastrophe in Iraq, it is necessary to consider the political situation, especially the fragmentation of the state into political blocs, which are fighting among themselves. This has stripped the state of any real power and central authority that would enable it to rebuild the infrastructure and put an end to sectarian and ethnic quota conflicts that are reflected in the distribution of resources. It has also caused the failure of the state to force neighbouring countries to respect Iraq's sovereign rights. This comes at a time when the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has classified Iraq among the 44 countries in need of urgent foreign food aid.
The local and global causes of this tragic situation are known, with the failure to implement effective remedies — about which so much has already been written — and creating alternative provision. To this we must add the political and economic complicity of the local rulers with the colonial-imperialist countries; the encouragement of policies of silence, surrender and satisfaction with the tragic reality, instead of rejection and resistance; and the growing sense of regional and ethnic rather than national identity are all responsible for creating conflicts even among their victims, leading to socio-environmental conflicts over land, resources and livelihoods taking centre stage.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 20 December 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.