Rising temperatures, dying cattle: Iraq is reeling from climate change

Iraq is at the frontlines of the climate crisis, with temperatures rising twice as fast as the global average. It’s also a major oil producer and the world’s second largest offender of gas flaring, a process that releases CO2. Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn reports as part of our ongoing series, “Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In November, nearly 200 nations gathered in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 climate summit. The outcome was disappointing for experts, who wanted stronger commitments to ensure capping global warming. The conference also failed to ease vulnerable countries' concerns about long-promised climate financing from rich nations.

    One of the countries lacking international support is Iraq. As NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn reports, the country is already facing the alarming effects of climate change.

    This story is part of our ongoing series, "Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change."

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Sunrise in Iraq's Mesopotamian marshes. These historic wetlands are nestled in southern Iraq, where human civilization emerged 7,000 years ago.

    But water scarcity is threatening this habitat and the humans who rely on it.

  • Jassem Ali, Fisherman:

    There's no water. And if there's no water, there's no more fish. There's only bare land left. The water has dried.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    In this area, average annual rainfall for the last twenty years was 10 percent lower than in the three decades prior.

    Declining water levels means the water that is left is increasingly salty , making it largely unfit for humans, animals and vegetation alike. Only small fish survive here now, but they fetch a lower price for the fishermen. Their catch earned them $15 dollars each, the result of two days of hard work.

  • Hassoun Daoud, Fisherman:

    Of course this is not enough. I have a family that depends on me. But this is our life now.

  • Jassem Ali, Fisherman:

    I have four children sitting at home. Two are married and two aren't.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    I ask Jassem Ali if he's thinking about leaving fishing to find work elsewhere.

    "And do what?" he asks in return.

    It's a question that weighs on many people's minds here, explains Jassem Al Assadi, a water engineer who has dedicated his life to protecting the marshes.

  • Jassem Al Assadi, Nature Iraq:

    Chibayish and other towns depend on the water economic activities, buffalo breeders, harvesting the reeds, grasses. If there's no water, everything is dead. The economic life is dead completely here.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Drought has further compounded another, long-standing water problem here.

    The marshes are fed by the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, both of which originate in Turkey, as well as other tributaries from Iran. Both countries have built dams upstream, which has gradually reduced water flow.

    The dams have long been a source of regional tensions, but climate change has further raised the stakes.

  • Jassem Al Assadi, Nature Iraq:

    If there's rain, this is a good basin to save this water for a few months. But there's no rain here, no rain in the basin of Iraq.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The marshes only span 2,000 square miles today, a 75 percent reduction compared to their original size.

    This is what the marshlands increasingly look like – cracked soil, and bone dry reeds. And even though we're now in November, which is supposed to be the onset of the rainy season, water levels continue to decline. Life here is simply no longer sustainable.

    More than half the households here have lost cattle this year due to lack of water, according to a survey carried out by the Norwegian Refugee Council. Dhuhriya Saquir and her family used to keep 20 water buffalos, but that number has dropped to four over the past few years. Their animals refuse to drink the polluted water, which means herders like Dhuriya are forced to buy drinking water to keep them alive.

    Dhuhriya Saquir, buffalo herder: Taking care of the buffalos is really making us tired. They are not coming back to us. We go looking for them, but even the boat cannot float after them anymore because there's no water. Then we find them dead, stuck in the mud.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Temperatures in Iraq have risen by more than 2.5 degrees Celsius since the end of the nineteenth century. That's 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, double the global average. Projections are equally alarming. says the World Bank's Special Representative for Iraq, Ramzi Neman.

    Ramzi Neman, Special Representative in Iraq, World Bank: We expected that an increase in temperature of almost 1.5 degrees within the coming years and that would have a tremendous effect .

  •  Simona Foltyn:

    But while Iraq is reeling from the impact of climate change, it is also a significant contributor to the greenhouse emissions that cause global warming. Iraq is the world's sixth largest oil producer, but is second only to Russia in gas flaring, a wasteful process of burning natural gas during oil extraction. Flaring emits CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, and accounts for 15 percent of Iraq's total greenhouse emissions.

    The government has vowed to eliminate flaring by 2027. At a recent roundtable with journalists, Iraq's oil minister said the country has allocated over five billion U.S. dollars for gas capture projects.

  • Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail, Iraq Oil Minister:

    We will secure the finance to make all the gas capturing for all Iraq. We will secure the finance to improve the refinery. We will secure the finance to change the liquid fuel in all power generation to be gas fuel.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    And all of this without any international support?

  • Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail:

    And all of this without the need for international support. If we are requested to do more, we are happy to receive. And we know, no one will give.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Indeed, at the recent COP26 summit, developed nations failed to meet financing targets for climate mitigation and adaptation programs.

    But Iraq's promises to end gas flaring have also not translated into commensurate commitments to reduce its carbon emissions.

    Iraq only pledged to reduce its emissions by two percent through national efforts, even though climate experts estimate that global emissions need to be cut by half by the end of this decade to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius.

    Ramzi Neman, Special Representative in Iraq, World Bank: These commitments are a bit shy. Iraq is a middle income country and I think that that they have resources that are generated that could be enough in really guiding the process forward.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    For Iraq's farmers, time is running out. Record-low rain falls over the past two years have resulted in widespread crop losses across Iraq, according to aid agencies.

    Muhsin Al Rudaini is one of many farmers forced to abandon their fields due to the drought.

  • Muhsin Al Rudaini, Farmer:

    During the 70s and 80s, this land was irrigated by the river flooding the land. Then gradually, we had to start using pumps. Last year, the water levels really dropped and this year, there's no water at all.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Outdated irrigation methods compound the water scarcity. Farmers today rely on the same inefficient surface irrigation techniques used by ancient Sumerians four thousand years ago.

    Experts say Iraq urgently needs investments to modernize irrigation. But corruption and mismanagement are deeply entrenched in Iraq's bureaucracy, wasting oil money that could be used for climate adaptation programs.

    Entire farming communities have disappeared, sending ripple effects through Iraq's food supply chain.

  • Muhsin Al Rudaini, Farmer:

    This used to be the breadbasket of Baghdad. We used to collect the crops in the morning and they'd reach Baghdad after an hour or two.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But now, much of the produce sold here is imported from neighboring countries.

    Meanwhile, Al Rudaini and his son have had little choice but to swap their fields for jobs at a nearby brick factory, where the air is thick with pollutants.

  • Munthir Muhsin Al Rudaini, Factory Worker:

    Normally, no man would accept this kind of work, because it makes you sick and it is tiring. It's too hot. You see the smoke? It means disease. What to do, what is the alternative? There's nothing but this work.

  •  Simona Foltyn:

    Crop failures are accelerating rural-to-urban migration. But already, Iraq's cities are suffering from widespread unemployment and inadequate infrastructure. Iraq's population hit 40 million in 2020 and is expected to reach 50 million by 2030, with most of the growth concentrated in urban areas.

    Ramzi Neman, Special Representative in Iraq, World Bank: Any kind of forced migration creates a problem. So how about talking about cities that are accommodating a huge number of incomers without the basic services that need to exist.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The consequences for Iraq could be dire.

    Ramzi Neman, Special Representative in Iraq, World Bank: These are elements that lead to social destabilization. And this country has enough drivers of fragility that we cannot add more to that if this is not being looked at carefully, that's something that could lead into conflict.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    In Iraq, the effects of climate change have become impossible to ignore. Its case offers a stern warning and a glimpse into what the future might hold for the rest of the world, should policy makers and the private sector fail to take steps to cut emissions.

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