In Iraq, climate change and water scarcity—two closely interlinked crises—are fueling the growth of new types of violence with some alarming characteristics: a state of chronic fragility, fierce struggles over power, weak institutional security, the growing armed power of factions and tribes, and the immiseration of large segments of the population.
This combination of factors makes it likely that collective violence will be widespread in the coming years, as communities stressed by various forms of environmental deterioration run into conflict—with each other or the state—over scarce and degraded resources, and to protect traditional assets. The state may also increasingly turn to violence to force civil society to accept measures aimed at controlling the climate crisis.
Climate change and water scarcity have already caused instability. In a vicious cycle, that instability is likely to worsen—and could even blossom into widespread violence—making it ever more difficult to launch effective adaptation strategies.
This brief commentary seeks to establish a baseline assessment of Iraq’s environmental situation, analyzing the relationship between environmental conditions and conflict. The idea that Iraq could be consumed by climate-related violence may as yet seem speculative, but the environmental facts on the ground are dire enough to raise the alarm.
Iraq’s Unique Vulnerability
Several characteristics make Iraq uniquely vulnerable to climate-related violence.
For one, the inherited agricultural economy plays a crucial role in strengthening civil peace and sharing wealth. Lands are passed down within families to prevent the displacement of individuals and communities to new lands owned by other clans or individuals, or toward areas whose stable cultural patterns contradict the displaced.
But for this system to work, the land needs to remain productive. Productivity requires water, and Iraq is quickly running out.
The Water Stress Index, issued by the World Resources Institute, predicts that Iraq will experience severe drought, extreme heat, scorching sun, and a toxic environment by 2040, with the water “scarcity level” expected to reach 4.6 points out of 5 (with 5 being the most severe). From 2025 onward, significant portions of the country will suffer from a total drought along the Euphrates River toward the south, while the Tigris will dwindle into just a tiny watercourse with limited resources.
In the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, which measures countries’ readiness to face climate change and their vulnerability, Iraq’s scores are impressively poor. It ranks 126 out of 181 countries overall, and is one of the world’s five most environmentally vulnerable and fragile countries. The next two decades will be hard on the country, with some areas becoming uninhabitable due to excessive temperature increases, a lack of rainfall, a shortage of surface water and groundwater, the intensification of dust storms, drought, and desertification. All of these factors cause agricultural decline, a collapse of food chains, and an increase in harmful human activities—from the government and individuals—as people try to cope with the impact of climate change.
The next two decades will be hard on the country, with some areas becoming uninhabitable due to excessive temperature increases, a lack of rainfall, and other problems.
Mismanagement of resources worsens the situation. Iraq uses a great deal of water for agriculture, but does so inefficiently—excessive water use does not translate into high agricultural productivity. The need for food assistance is widespread.
Compounding these problems are Iraq’s high levels of poverty—an ironic fact in a country with so much natural resource wealth. The national poverty index grew by 18 percentage points in just three years, from 15 percent in 2018 to 32 percent in 2020. In Sunni areas that had been under Islamic State control, the increase was even more alarming, from 20 percent to 41 percent in the same period. By 2022, 25 percent of Iraqis—11.4 million people—were living below the poverty line, with the overall unemployment rate standing at 16 percent. Moreover, the continued drought is anticipated to result in an 11.5 percent decline in the requirement for unskilled labor in the medium term, leading to more impoverishment.
All of these factors have led to a surge in rural-to-urban migration. Rural Iraqis, who account for some 30 percent of the population, are beginning to abandon their failing farms and are flooding into urban centers, often living in slums with poor services. Herein is another vicious cycle, as natural habitats and productive agricultural areas near cities are being bulldozed to build housing for the displaced masses. These displacements—which are often accompanied by political interference, militia activity, and land confiscation—are already causing social panic and straining infrastructure.
All of the aforementioned, if left unaddressed, will increase the risks of poverty, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, and destruction of historical agricultural areas, leading to more displacement, low levels of public health, instability, increasing climate violence, and a collective struggle for the control of water.
These stresses are already erupting into widespread climate-related violence, especially In rural and agricultural areas, particularly in the mid-Euphrates and southern regions, where there are substantial communities of armed tribespeople. Moreover, crimes and social violence have also increased alarmingly.
My research has revealed more than a dozen specific forms of violence related to climate change and environmental degradation, which often aggravate each other and involve both the authorities and the population. Types of violence range from conflict over water resources, to the government forcing the adoption of new farming methods, political exploitation of the environmental situation, persecution of environmental activists, intertribal disputes, and even farmer suicide.
The Case of Basra
In 2018, more than a hundred thousand people in Basra were hospitalized as a result of contamination of the public water system. Basrawis, furious at the chronic deterioration of water quality and pollution resulting from the extraction of oil and gas, directed their frustration toward both the local and national governments.
This Basra “environmental uprising” froze the government, targeted the Iranian consulate, and ultimately contributed to the powerful Dawa Party losing its position as the country’s ruling party. This marked a turning point in Iraqi politics.
Basra’s troubles can be viewed as a convergence of various climate-related factors—including many of the factors discussed above, but also pollution from energy extraction—and to the unique pressures that the oil economy puts on Basra’s agriculture.
Basra’s farmers mostly do not own the lands they cultivate, which are either state-owned or have been seized as part of “oil taboo lands”—areas where oil fields are situated or where oil pipelines run, which, according to the Hydrocarbon Wealth Preservation Law No. 84/1985, are not supposed to be used for any purpose other than oil production and transportation operations. Basra agricultural authorities indicate that oil taboos dominate 80 percent of the city’s land; in the district of al-Mudaina in northern Basra, they account for 95 percent of the land. Oil firms have seized a great deal of agricultural land.
The uprising and confrontations in Basra offer a miniature view of the type of conflict that is likely to become much more common in Iraq in the coming years.
The Mid-Euphrates and the South
The Mid-Euphrates and southern regions are currently experiencing a concerning escalation of armed tribal conflicts, frequently over water. Dozens of incidents are being recorded daily. Certain towns and villages exploit their strategic locations to cut off water or roads to the rest of the country.
On multiple occasions, local governments in the Mid-Euphrates and southern regions have fought among themselves and with clans in order to guarantee water quotas for their residents. Then, the federal government intervenes to resolve these disputes by imposing greater violence against local communities.
The national government, whose policies are much responsible for the environmental destruction in these areas, has shifted the burden of responding to the crises onto local communities.
The national government, whose policies are much responsible for the environmental destruction in these areas, has shifted the burden of responding to the crises onto local communities. It has required farmers, livestock breeders, fish farmers, and rural residents to implement agricultural and irrigation techniques as well as efficient water technology to promote climate-resilient production, as part of a plan to reform the agricultural sector. But it has required these changes by threatening to withhold support, which has increased tensions between communities and the central government.
A “Catastrophic Convergence”
The few examples described here give a taste of what’s to come in Iraq, and serve as a starting point to understand and measure Iraq’s environmental condition and its relationship with climate violence. Climate change and water scarcity have combined to create a severe overall environmental impact, and threaten to turbocharge, in the words of American journalist Christian Parenti, a “catastrophic convergence”: violence, poverty, and environmental degradation.
The dangers ahead are already clear. The government has shown that it is unable to effectively respond to these crises. It has insufficient analytical tools, lacks proper planning for risk management, and faces difficulty financing national adaptation plans to move away from the extraction of polluting energy sources, on which the country’s budget relies excessively. Governmental policy failure, environmental fragility, and poor service provision in swelling urban settlements will almost surely lead to intense struggles in the coming decades.
The government’s militarized response to current disputes and protest movements is a concerning harbinger of what the future holds. Further, this militarized response and worsening economic conditions will give the environmentally displaced little recourse but to protest, antagonize the state, and even resort to violence to try to improve their conditions. And the violent silencing of nongovernmental organizations and activists—including with kidnappings, arrests, threats of imprisonment, and arbitrary prosecution—is already undermining environmental advocacy, and will make effective, peaceful adaptation measures less likely.
Iraq’s climate catastrophe also poses the risk of violence that goes beyond civil conflict over resources, and extends to confrontations between Iraq’s major political groups. There have already been some examples of such escalations: Following the failed Erbil–Baghdad political negotiations in 2016, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which controls the flow of the Tigris from the north, threatened to shut off supplies to Iraq’s central and southern regions. And after the September 2017 Kurdish vote for independence, Baghdad asked Iran to cut Iraqi Kurdistan’s water supply. When Iran cut off the Little Zab River’s water, the KRG stopped supplying Arab regions. And during the war against the Islamic State, both the extremist group and its adversaries in the Iraqi armed forces and the Popular Mobilization Units targeted water supplies to cause the displacement of populations.
The data on the severity of Iraq’s environmental crises have already been collected and are becoming well known. What is less appreciated is the real and growing potential for widespread civil strife that may spiral out of control as the climate and environment grow worse. This reality underscores the urgency of action on Iraq’s climate catastrophe—the stakes could not be higher.
Header image: A child walks through a dust storm at a camp, for those caught up in the fighting against the Islamic State, in Khazair, Iraq, in 2014. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images