Drought and heat waves on top of decades of conflict have forced families in Iraq to abandon farming after generations and have left children fearful for their futures, Save the Children has warned in a report released ahead of COP28 which launches in the UAE next week.
Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country to water and food shortages and extreme temperatures, according to the United Nations. Drought has destroyed farmland in rural areas like the Abu Al-Khaseeb district in the southern governorate of Basra, leaving communities with no income. As the drought worsens, more livestock — often a crucially important source of income for rural families — fall ill and die, forcing thousands of people to be displaced multiple times.
More than 130,000 families have been displaced in Iraq as a result of drought, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Projections show that Iraq is expected to be the ‘hottest’ country in the region by 2050, with average temperature exceeding 36 degrees Celsius.
Families in southern Iraq have faced a combination of shocks over the years including an environment damaged by years of conflict and the impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, sandstorms, heatwaves and droughts. This ‘perfect storm’ has impacted the quality of life of thousands of children. Child poverty rates are significantly higher in rural areas where children, dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, are disproportionately affected by risks such as child labour. The number is set to rise as a result of climate displacement and crop failure, Save the Children warns.
Trying to adapt
Fourteen-year-old Ahmed lives in Abu Al-Khaseeb with his family of five. His family has been displaced twice: first due to armed conflict in the 1990s and more recently due to the climate crisis. They originally worked in agriculture and livestock, but Ahmed’s father said their animals died due to the intrusion of salt water into their lands, which also damaged their date palms, okra and other crops. The family hasn’t cultivated their lands for two years and is now struggling to make ends meet.
“I’m worried about my future. If this situation continues, I might have to drop out of school to support my family. My dream is to become an engineer, fix the water issue and build houses for the poor,” Ahmed says.Farmer Musleh has already been forced to find another source of income to support his family. “I’m working as a daily labourer now, which is very tiring. We receive water every other day for around two hours. It is barely enough for us to drink and wash our clothes. We can’t start any farming with that water. We need support to desalinate the water from the Gulf, otherwise, we will all have to leave this place,” he warns.
He and his five children, including his nine-year-old daughter Wassan, live on the outskirts of Abu Al-Khaseeb. Their home is in an informal settlement, with limited access to services.
Though Musleh has been diagnosed with leukaemia, he is the family’s breadwinner so must continue working.
“In our farm we used to plant dates, pomegranates and other vegetables and fruits. This was back then, when there was water, but now they are all dying. They say it’s because it’s not raining,” Wassan explains.Ten-year-old Haidar says seeing his family’s farm and animals die makes him sad. Haidar’s family live with his grandfather who owns a date farm and raises animals for dairy products and breeding.
As a result of the lack of water and subsequent death of livestock, Haidar’s dad works as a taxi driver and the family continues to struggle financially due to drought.
“It makes me sad when I see our farm and animals die. They say it’s the water. At school, they don’t speak about all these surrounding issues. When I grow up, I hope to become a teacher, and I will speak about these problems, because they are all around us,” Haidar says.
Earlier this month a study revealed that extreme droughts that have wrecked the lives of millions of people in Syria, Iraq and Iran since 2020 would not have happened without human-caused global heating. The climate crisis means such long-lasting and severe droughts are no longer rare, the analysis showed. In the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which covers large parts of Syria and Iraq, droughts of this severity happened about once every 250 years before global heating – now they are expected once a decade.
All names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned.
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