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20 Years After US Invasion, Iraq Faces Cascading Climate and Water Crises

A defender of Iraq’s southern marshlands was recently kidnapped amid extreme drought and fierce competition for water.

Children stand on a boat lying on the dried-up bed of Iraq's receding southern marshes of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, on July 24, 2022.

Twenty years after a United States-led coalition invaded and occupied Iraq, the country is facing cascading environmental crises and was recently declared the fifth-most vulnerable country to climate disruption. Plagued by instability and corruption fueled by religious divisions and various militias competing for influence and revenue, the Iraqi government is weak and unable to tackle these challenges without international assistance, according to the United Nations.

Iraq is also a dangerous place to be an environmentalist.

Jassim Al-Asadi, an expert on Iraq’s iconic marshlands, was kidnapped by gunmen while driving to Baghdad on February 3 and then released to his family two weeks later. The armed group left another passenger on the highway during the kidnapping, suggesting Al-Asadi was specifically targeted. While the perpetrators and their motives remain under investigation, colleagues suspect the kidnapping is related to Al-Asadi’s work with one of Iraq’s most precious resources — not oil but water.

A co-founder of Nature Iraq and leading environmental expert, Al-Asadi is a vocal defender of Iraq’s southern marshlands and the Marsh Arab tribes who lived in them for generations. While the landscape and water flow have shifted over millennia, ancient Mesopotamian city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are thought to have risen from such marshlands. Today, people in southern Iraq still rely on the two famed rivers — and the marshy waterways they feed — for transportation and agriculture, but the water is increasingly polluted and drying up.

This “cradle of civilization” is what Al-Asadi affectionately calls the “Garden of Eden,” but the marshland ecosystems are collapsing. Drained by Saddam Hussein’s government in the early 1990s to punish rebellious Marsh Arabs hiding out among the reeds, portions of the marshlands began coming back to life in 2006 after Hussein was deposed and locals returned to dismantle dykes with pickaxes and international support. Now the marshlands are disappearing once again under the compounding pressures of heat waves and drought fueled by climate change, and fierce competition for water between Iraq and its powerful upstream neighbors in Turkey and Iran.

“Water is such a valuable commodity, particularly in areas where it’s so scarce, and where [scarcity] seems to be getting worse due to fluctuating climate and increased demand upstream,” Steve Lonergan, a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria who works closely with Al-Asadi, told Truthout.

Observers say the climate and environmental crisis in Iraq is obvious far beyond the fertile southeast, where lakes and marshes control regional temperatures and prevent dust storms in an otherwise arid part of the world. Water levels have plummeted to historic lows in the once-mighty Tigris and Euphrates, Iraq’s main sources of fresh water. Water scarcity is particularly devastating for small farmers, according to Oxfam.

Frequent dust storms fueled by desertification and urban sprawl torment Iraqi towns and cities already struggling with the toxic legacies of war. Extreme heat, unpredictable rainfall, flooding and drought has brought devastating economic consequences to Iraq’s population, according to the UN.

After years of occupation, civil war and the fight against the insurgent ISIS, successive U.S.-backed governments of Iraq have been unable to meet the basic needs of citizens, particularly the poor, some of whom have resorted to camping in overfilled dumps to make a meager living sorting waste. Trash is regularly incinerated in Iraq, adding to air pollution from dust, oil production, traffic and power plants.

As longtime researcher of the social costs of climate change and a former environmental program director at the UN, Lonergan has traveled to Iraq frequently since the mid-2000s to study and revive the marshlands. Lonergan eventually befriended Al-Asadi and is the co-author of their forthcoming book, The Ghosts of Iraq’s Marshes: A History of Conflict, Tragedy, and Restoration.

“If you look at all aspects of the environment in Iraq, from wastewater to drinking water issues, to dust issues, they are just enormous problems; I never ceased to be amazed how chaotic the government is there,” Lonergan said.

On October 1, 2019, thousands of people gathered for sit-ins and demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest against an Iraqi government gripped by sectarianism and Iranian intervention. Angered by power outages and high unemployment, the protesters demanded basic rights and public services, and an end to corruption and nepotism endemic to the political system.

Iraqi police and Iranian militias responded with intense violence and live bullets that left many demonstrators dead and wounded. Mass protests spread across the country in what is now known as the Great October Revolution; these protests called for an end to the political system installed during the U.S. occupation and inspired a new generation of Iraqi activists.

Smaller, youth-led protests erupted in August 2022 in the area of the Al-Hawizeh Marsh, part of the southern marshlands. The protesters were demanding access to water resources and an end to the humanitarian crisis sparked by the disappearing marshes. The Iraqi army and police responded violently, blocking off access to the area and conducting mass arrests, according to the Iraqi activist group Workers Against Sectarianism.

For years, Iraq has blamed neighboring Turkey and Iran for its water woes, and with good reason. Turkey operates a network of giant dams and reservoirs that control how much water flows down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers into Iraqi agricultural areas and eventually the marshlands. Iran also controls water flowing to Iraq, and between 2007 and 2009, the Iranians built a dyke near the border with Iraq and began draining northern marshes for oil exploration, which caused dust storms to descend on nearby Iranian cities, according to Lonergan.

In February, water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates reportedly dropped by 30 percent, leading to the latest round of regional finger-pointing. Turkey blames Iraq for wasting water with dilapidated infrastructure, and Lonergan said cooperation between the two countries has slowed to a trickle over the years.

“[My colleagues] tell me there is just little dialogue between Iran and Iraq now, and Iraq and Turkey as well over water,” Lonergan said. “Because of the upstream interests, whether it’s Turkey or whether it’s the agriculture sector in Iran, they don’t want to see the water going into the marshes. They see it as a waste of water.”

Iraq is making its own attempt to confront the impacts of climate change with international support. At a recent climate conference in Basra, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said climate change has affected more than 7 million Iraqis, and announced a sweeping national plan to combat desertification and protect biological diversity.

Iraq’s climate plan includes the planting of 5 million palms and trees in hopes of improving water retention, preventing dust storms, saving energy and providing shade to residents. The country also hopes to use renewable energy to meet one-third of Iraq’s energy needs by 2030, according to reports.

Back in the marshes, Al-Asadi and other advocates are experimenting with the marshes’ ability to cleanse wastewater made of organic sewage as a potential source of water to keep the marshes alive. Lonergan said you wouldn’t want to eat the fish — Al-Asadi has joked that they are “pre-seasoned” — but it’s better than nothing. The current cycles of drought do not bode well for the future of the marshes or the people who live there.

Lonergan said Al-Asadi’s international contacts and vocal advocacy for the marshes is likely what made him a target for kidnapping. The Iraqi government is notorious for corruption, and multiple countries and industries are all competing for access to water.

“[Corruption] is a problem it affects all aspects of life, and it certainly affects the marshes, and Jassim fights against that, and that make him a visible target,” Lonergan said. “He’s firmly embedded there — honestly, he loves the marshes, that’s his life.”

Al-Asadi was safely released two weeks after the kidnapping and has said little publicly beyond his personal Facebook account, where he is defiantly documenting his return to the Iraqi marshlands.

“They tortured my body enough, but they could not subdue my will and humiliate my soul, I returned to my environment, the affection of my grandchildren, and the communities of clergy and their kindness,” Al-Asadi wrote in a translated post on February 27.

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