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IRQ - Climate Change - 2024 - Meethak AL khatib (8)-min © Meethak AL khatib pour Action contre la Faim



Climate crisis: the exodus of thousands of Iraqis

Falling water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to the construction of dams in neighboring countries, poor management of water resources, rising temperatures, declining rainfall and more intense and prolonged drought episodes are having a direct impact on agricultural yields and the livelihoods of populations, who are exposed to the risk of malnutrition and forced to move to other regions.

According to the UN, Iraq has become the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate disruption, a phenomenon exacerbated by decades of chaos and violence and which threatens to undermine the country’s stability. 7 years after the end of hostilities between Iraqi forces, supported by an international coalition, and Daech, almost 2.5 million people are still in need of humanitarian aid in the country². Violence persists in a more sporadic, localized and fragmented form, while governance remains fragile and the population divided.

To support the most vulnerable households affected by the climate crisis, Action Against Hunger (ACF) is setting up food assistance programs in the south, in Basra and Thi-Qar. In the governorate of Ninewa, in the north of the country, an innovative monitoring, forecasting and community action program is helping to cope with water shortages.

IRQ - Climate Change - 2024 - Meethak AL khatib (2) (1)-min © Meethak AL khatib pour Action contre la Faim
IRQ - Climate Change - 2024 - Meethak AL khatib (7)-min © Meethak AL khatib pour Action contre la Faim
IRQ - Climate Change - 2024 - Meethak AL khatib (6) (1)-min © Meethak AL khatib pour Action contre la Faim


Loss of biodiversity and livelihoods


In the legendary marshes of Mesopotamia, one of the world’s largest wetlands, falling water levels, salinization and pollution have led to a dramatic loss of flora and fauna, depriving inhabitants of their livelihoods and driving them into exodus. From 20,000 km2 in the early 1990s, the three marshes located between Al-Chibayish, Al-Hawizeh and Al-Hammar, in the Thi-Qar governorate, have shrunk to less than 4,000 km2³.

In total, some 20,000 people have left the marshes, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Most of the marsh dwellers have relocated to nearby permanent homes or informal settlements near urban centers. But displaced rural families are often stigmatized and struggle to gain access to decent housing, employment and basic services such as health and education.

Now settled with his family in the community of Al-Chibayish, just a hundred meters from his native marshes, Abdul Hussein’s life has been marked by successive displacements. In the 90s, Saddam Hussein’s regime deliberately drained a large part of the marshes, to facilitate access for his troops and subdue a population he considered rebellious. The loss of livelihoods and lack of access to health care and education led Abdul Hussein and his family to move to the governorate of Salah Al-Din, more than 500 kilometers from the marshes.

Abdul only returned to live in the marshes in 2006, after the destruction of the canals and dykes that diverted the flow of water and contributed to the drying up of the canals. But in 2022, a historic drought transformed the marshes into vast stretches of desert, prompting him to leave again. “We were forced to leave the marshes because of the water shortage and the lack of sources of income. We depended on fish and reeds and also had livestock, but there’s nothing left now. The land has become desert, and no boat or car can reach us anymore. Many people also had to leave,” laments Abdul bitterly from the site of his former home.

All that remains of his marsh house are two masts planted in the dusty ground and scattered weavings of reeds. The islet is surrounded by cracked earth and reeds yellowed by the sun. In a region where temperatures sometimes reach 60 degrees, water levels can drop drastically during the summer months due to evaporation. This degradation of the natural habitat has led to the depletion of many of the animals that used to sustain communities. Buffalo, particularly affected by water-related pathologies, are the first victims, but many bird and fish species have also been affected.

Abdul has now given up fishing and works in construction when there is work. Nevertheless, the lack of income affects his ability to provide quality food for his wife and their six children. The family owns just one cow, to be sold in case of hard times. “The communities here suffer from malnutrition and need food assistance. We met children in a very poor state of health,” explains Jawad Jabar, Multi-sectoral Program Manager for Action Against Hunger (ACF° in southern Iraq. In the community of Al-Chibayish, ACF provided food baskets to over 160 families in precarious situations.


IRQ - Climate Change - 2024 - Meethak AL khatib (5)-min © Meethak AL khatib pour Action contre la Faim
IRQ - Climate Change - 2024 - Meethak AL khatib (4)-min © Meethak AL khatib pour Action contre la Faim


Displacement and social tensions: the cost of water scarcity


In the Ninewa plains of northern Iraq, climate change is intertwined with social tensions and economic challenges. As arable land diminishes, the risk of displacement and local or regional conflicts caused by competition for water increases. 

Ninewa is traditionally the country’s breadbasket. Declining rainfall, on which 90% of agricultural production depends, old or damaged irrigation infrastructure, unregulated water extraction and inefficient farming practices have worsened water quality. As public water resources are depleted, households are increasingly turning to costly private sources, such as bottled water and trucking. Access to water is therefore based on the purchasing power of individuals on the markets, while a quarter of the Iraqi population lives below the poverty line.

Due to growing water insecurity and loss of income, more and more farmers are abandoning their fields and moving to the towns. A new phenomenon in this part of the country and little documented until now, but already well known to local authorities. According to them, several villages in the Hatra area, in the extreme north-west of the country, have been deserted due to the poor quality of the water: only 36 of the 500 villages established in the area in the 90s remain.

« In some districts of Sinjar, Baaj and Hatra, there is no more water, adds Asmaa Mohammed, field coordinator for Action Against Hunger (ACF) in northern Iraq. In Baaj, the community relies heavily on truck deliveries of water. There have already been several displacements due to water shortages, as the community is unable to cultivate the land and meet its basic needs.”

In this region scarred by violence linked to the conflict with the Islamic State, the climate crisis raises fears of worsening community tensions and an erosion of social cohesion. “When there is less drinking water, it undoubtedly fosters social and tribal conflicts. Communities compete for access to basic services“, worries Asmaa Mohammed, who lived in Mosul during the conflict. While the country’s stability remains fragile, adaptation to climate change is a corollary to reconstruction, and dealing with it is essential to building lasting peace.

In response to the challenges posed by water scarcity in Ninewa governorate, Action Against Hunger (ACF) has implemented a monitoring, forecasting and community action program. Through this project, local communities, formed into community committees, and government agencies are involved and equipped with the skills and tools to take corrective action and make timely decisions to meet the challenge of water scarcity. A monitoring dashboard developed in partnership with Mosul University and REACH provides civil society and local authorities with an information base for monitoring droughts and taking appropriate action. Financial assistance programs are also in place to support farmers affected by the climate crisis.

In 2023, Action Against Hunger’s intervention programs helped 44,963 people in need across Iraq. 36,900 of them benefited from increased access to water, hygiene and sanitation.


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