Iraq is at the deadly intersection of multiple major climate and environmental crises. The government’s attempts to mitigate the impact of climate change are too feeble to match the scale of the climate crisis, particularly drought. For Iraq to find its way out of the grim status quo of poor governance and environmental catastrophe, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society will need to play a crucial role.
Yet NGOs and civil society in Iraq are inexperienced and, at times, disorganized. And while environmental NGOs have had some success in attracting support from international funders, these activists’ enemies are casting them as stooges for foreign interests and values. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of activism is hamstrung by political instability. Worse, environmental activists are increasingly coming under attack, and even killed.
The need for action on Iraq’s environment could not be clearer. Water scarcity is already a major problem—and by 2025, the country’s total water supply is projected to decline by as much as 60 percent compared to the levels observed in 2015. Farmers are deserting their lands, and heading to urban slums—resulting in increased social and local political conflicts.
Climate change is not the only cause of these problems. Other factors have contributed, including reduced water flow from Turkey and Iran, intensive water use, lack of investment in the water sector, and poor national water management.
Political factors—including conflict—have gotten in the way of a more robust national response to these problems. And climate change and environmental degradation also aggravate instability.
This commentary maps the current landscape of climate and environmental activism in Iraq, including its weaknesses, and shows that civil society action will be essential in facing the country’s many intersecting crises.
Mapping Climate Activism
In Iraq, climate activism refers to all organized and grassroots civil efforts to address the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change. Climate activism is a relatively recent phenomenon in the country. Earlier, the biggest concerns of environmental activists in Iraq were pollution—especially pollution from oil production activities and waste-dumping. And before 2003, under Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime, there was likely very little environmental activism at all (though information on activism in the period is sparse). That’s not to say that there wasn’t severe environmental degradation during this period—Saddam infamously drained Iraq’s unique marshes. But there was no organized movement to restore the marshes until 2003. In fact, during the thirty-five years from 1968 to 2003 when Iraq was ruled by a totalitarian regime, civil society, to the extent that it existed, merely parroted the policies of the government.
Most of the civil society bodies that exist in Iraq today were established after 2003. Although they sometimes had to rely on foreign objectives and funds, they eventually succeeded in establishing an independent voice and representation. In 2010, the Iraqi government introduced the Civil Society Organization Law, which established a legal framework to register the organizations and improve their governance. Today, Iraq has roughly 5,000 registered civil society organizations, of which 185 are environmental.
Environmental activism in Iraq is not limited to registered NGOs. Several grassroots campaigns have emerged as a response to the slow or missing government measures to address climate change and protect the environment. The most well-known of these movements was the Save Basra campaign of 2018, which protested the water pollution in 2018; it eventually turned violent. Another form of climate activism is practiced by individual activists and small groups of farmers and voluntary activists who have taken to the media to monitor environmental degradation, raise awareness, implement small-scale greening projects, and voice their concerns. Many of these campaigns and activists face backlash from armed groups in Iraq based on allegations of suspicious connections with foreign entities.
The Current Scene
The outlook for climate activism in Iraq appears bleak, primarily due to structural and political factors. Environmental NGOs, influenced by foreign funding and objectives, struggle to address the urgent needs of vulnerable communities affected by both climate change and poor governance. Many environmental NGOs face funding shortages or are tied to specific project schemes that may not effectively alleviate climate-related issues. For instance, despite joint efforts by Nature Iraq, the Save the Tigris campaign, and Humat Dijlah to revive the marshes since 2003 and—successfully—to get the marshes listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016, the wetlands continue to deteriorate. Severe water scarcity in the area has significantly affected the livelihoods of local communities, leading to the decline of fisheries and buffalo populations, and forcing locals to abandon their traditional ways of living. But despite the massive scale of the problem, most civil society and international organizations’ initiatives focus on small-bore water relief projects like the WASH framework (water, sanitation, and hygiene) or awareness-raising campaigns.
Despite the massive scale of the problem in the Iraqi marshes, most civil society and international organizations’ initiatives focus on small-bore water relief projects or awareness-raising campaigns.
Environmental NGOs also have to compete for opportunities with civil society organizations (CSOs) that have relatively more experience and better structures. Several CSOs have leveraged these advantages to seize international funds for small-scale environmental and climate-related relief projects, even though they have no actual track record on projects related to climate and the environment. Naturally, these CSOs have not been able to deliver results that satisfied donor expectations. But rather than helping the NGOs that might have been better positioned to implement such projects, the CSOs’ failure soured donors on giving specialized NGOs access to bigger funds.
Nevertheless, environmental civil society has continued to grow. Several NGOs have established themselves as independent expert bodies involved in research and advocacy activities; they also collaborate with several international and local institutions. Below, I provide a brief list outlining some of these organizations and their work.
- Nature Iraq got its start in 2003, when the NGO led the effort to restore the marshes on the floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates. The organization’s work focuses on preserving the natural environment and building national capacities through training and collaboration. It also works on developing research and databases linked to several environmental issues, including biodiversity loss and water resources. Advocacy, monitoring, and raising awareness are important parts of Nature Iraq’s work as well. They have joined forces with several environmental campaigns to promote fair and sustainable water use and have condemned harmful water management practices at both the local and national levels.
- The Iraqi Green Climate Organization is a registered environmental NGO that has been active since 2013 in the fields of biodiversity, wildlife conservation, and ecotourism. The organization is managed by professional local ecologists who are also working with specialized teams to provide technical support and veterinary aid to develop buffalo breeding and sustainable fishing in the marshes. The body also organizes campaigns against overfishing and other unsustainable resource use, especially in the marshes, where biodiversity has been rapidly declining. The organization has also supported academic research and workshops on climate change impacts. Its most important contribution was submitting a proposal to the Iraqi Ministry of Environment, in March 2018, on the importance of Iraq’s accession to Paris Agreement; the report was discussed by the Iraqi council of Ministers. The Iraqi Green Climate Organization was also the first environmental NGO to support the Iraqi delegation’s participation in the conference of parties in 2015.
- Humat Dijlah (which means Tigris Protectors) is an environmental and water preservation organization established in 2015. According to an activist I interviewed, Humat Dijlah has a wide network of more than four hundred volunteers active in seventeen Iraqi governorates. These members are active in monitoring environmental violations and reporting the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Most of the organization’s work involves running advocacy and raising awareness campaigns through its media channels, which have grown considerably in recent years. Humat Dijlah runs advocacy campaigns against damming projects upstream like Ilisu Dam in southeast Turkey and Makhool Dam north of Baghdad. It also plays an important role in protecting the rights of the marsh communities, and helped to get the marshes listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016.
Structural and Funding Limitations
Despite more than twenty years of environmental activism in Iraq, the structural capacities of many of these organizations and campaigns remain underdeveloped. While some of these groups have invested in developing their capacities, many lack specialized technical training and tools to scale up their engagement. Most importantly, environmental NGOs in general struggle to attract substantial funding, either because they have unclear long-term visions or shortages in staff capacities .
Some of the currently active environmental NGOs have only entered the field because of the availability of foreign funding or shifts in the objectives of international funders, rather than genuine interest in environmental activism or extensive experience. This shift has resulted in poor and short-lived implementation of projects, which, in turn, cause donors to lose trust and indirectly reduce the chances that qualified environmental NGOs can receive funds. Competition with unspecialized CSOs, as described above, has also made it difficult for the environmental NGOs to access funds.
Internal Political Challenges
Following the political turmoil brought by the Tishreen Movement, which began in 2019, and the establishment of the Coordination Framework government, the space for civil society has been steadily shrinking. Several environmental activists have faced violence. Climate activists have been murdered, kidnapped, and intimidated. Their enemies usually accuse them of collaborating with international entities to implement foreign agenda. While the identity of the aggressing groups has never been officially named, the government and the public have some knowledge of their power and their alliances. Since 2019, these groups have started to treat climate advocates as political activists and have systematically worked to cast aspersions on the activists’ intentions. This approach has created a level of hesitation among segments of the public, who have also begun to perceive environmental activists as collaborators with foreign powers, especially against conservative values.
While anecdotal evidence suggests that some foreign institutions might indeed have supported a few activists during the Tishreen Movement, the environmental movement has remained independent. Nevertheless, the public’s distrust of the leading Shia political parties during the Tishreen Movement, evident in the parliamentary elections of October 2021, has put these parties and their allies on high alert regarding any civil movement with any form of connections to foreign entities.
Climate activists have been murdered, kidnapped, and intimidated. Their enemies accuse them of being stooges for foreign interests and values.
Today, most environmental activists are careful about how they work, whether in conducting their movements, in their connections with foreign institutions, or even in their more routine activities. The backlash against activism in general has constrained their effectiveness. For example, it has become more difficult to access data gathered by governmental bodies or to obtain declarations to access polluted sites or governmental institutions. Meetings and workshops held by local NGOs in collaboration with foreign institutions are closely monitored and often need to be declared to authorities in advance. Environmental researchers that I interviewed believe that authorities are restricting their work and access to information because those authorities fear that the evidence will be used to attack government inaction—when, in fact, activists intend to use reliable data for scientific purposes or build stronger advocacy campaigns.
If Iraq is to provide a meaningful response to its climate and environmental woes, empowering its civil society is crucial. Building trust, strengthening collaboration, and keeping open channels for dialogue instead of questioning intentions or marginalizing the role of NGOs are a few steps the country needs to take toward mending the relationship between the government and activists. And building trust may be the most challenging step—but it is also the most important.
To improve trust, Iraqi authorities must better identify those who threaten the safety of environmental activists, and bring them to justice. Providing a level of protection to activists would also encourage much-needed international support to Iraq to mitigate the impact of climate change.
However, the new policies of the Coordination Framework government, which target the freedom of civil society, suggest that fostering trust would be a great challenge to overcome. Thus, the role of the international community is even more important here, particularly when it comes to mediation initiatives and facilitating collaboration between both parties.
Ultimately, it is the environmental NGOs who are responsible for overcoming their structural and funding limitations. But support from the international community will be very valuable in helping them to succeed. Investing in building capacities, providing research and monitoring tools, and building regional and international networks that connect local activists with the global debate around climate change—these would be small but important steps toward reinforcing a robust climate and environmental movement in Iraq.
Header image: An Iraqi marsh Arab woman punts in the marshes south of the Iraqi city of Ammarah, in a 2005 photo. Source: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty Images