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Iraq's political stalemate pushes climate action to backseat

An Iraqi Marsh Arab man looks at dry ground that was previously covered with water at the Chebayesh marsh in Dhi Qar province, Iraq, June 3, 2022.

An Iraqi Marsh Arab man looks at dry ground that was previously covered with water at the Chebayesh marsh in Dhi Qar province, Iraq, June 3, 2022. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

What’s the context?

A political crisis has left Iraq without a functional government and unable to act on worsening climate change impacts.

  • Iraq's people on the frontline of a warming planet
  • Oil revenue could fund adaptation measures, analysts say  
  • But political stalemate puts action, investments on hold

By Nazih Osseiran

BEIRUT - Thousands of years ago, the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers may have been the site of the Garden of Eden. Today, climate change is making Iraq more inhospitable by the year.

But even as tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue swell the nation's coffers, an extended political deadlock has left the country with no working government and little hope for meaningful action on climate adaptation, political analysts say.

"The political crisis is adding a layer of complexity to the climate crisis in the country," said Zeinab Shuker, an Iraqi sociology professor at Sam Houston State University in the U.S. state of Texas.

"The worst-case scenario is what is happening right now," added Shuker, who writes about the political economy of Iraq.

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Iraq is embroiled in a political quagmire that has left it without a functioning government for almost a year, the worst deadlock the country has experienced since 2003.

Parliament has failed to agree on a new president or prime minister since an election last October, in a power struggle among rival factions that spilled over into deadly street clashes earlier this month.

Meanwhile, citizens are facing an increasingly tough struggle with the impacts of a heating planet.

The temperatures in Iraq's capital Baghdad rose by 1.7 degrees Celsius between 1960 and 2021, according to Berkeley Earth, a U.S.-based environmental data science nonprofit. During summer, temperatures often reach up to 50C (122 Fahrenheit).

Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change in the world, according to a report this year by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Water resources are growing scarce as supplies dwindle and demand continues to increase. Dams built by neighbours Turkey and Iran mean less water makes its way downstream to Iraq.

At the end of 2021, 20,000 people in Iraq were displaced due to water scarcity, moving from rural areas to urban centers, according to the IOM report.

A man pours a bottle of water on his head to cool off at a street during high temperature in Baghdad, Iraq, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

A man pours a bottle of water on his head to cool off at a street during high temperature in Baghdad, Iraq, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

A man pours a bottle of water on his head to cool off at a street during high temperature in Baghdad, Iraq, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Political deadlock

The political infighting comes at a time when oil-rich Iraq is benefiting from the global increase in the price of energy following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Some of those revenues could be harnessed for climate initiatives, said Yesar Al-Maleki, an analyst at the Middle East Economic Survey, an energy industry newsletter, and a former government official.

Over the past eight months, Iraq collected about $82 billion in revenues from oil sales, according to a statement by Alaa Al-Yasiri, director general of the National Oil Marketing Company.

Despite the windfall, Iraqi policymakers are unable to access the bulk of the cash until legislation is passed to set out a government budget. In the meantime, government bodies have to rely on emergency funding mechanisms.

The political stalemate has prevented the formation of an executive branch that can carry out state functions such as formulating a budget and negotiating water access with neighbouring governments such as Turkey.

Iraq has had no working national budget since 2022. It is unlikely that the political elite will reach a deal in time to legislate 2023's budget, said Maleki and other political analysts.

The absence of a stable government and public spending prevents any long-term strategy to deal with the climate crisis and a host of other issues, Maleki and the other political analysts said.

If a government is appointed, the experts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they fear it could fall prey to political machinations driven by corruption and patronage.

Rather than address the country's climate woes, politicians would be more concerned with "dividing up the pie" said a former Iraq economic official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Transparency International ranked Iraq 157 out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

"Iraq is losing on so many fronts," Maleki said.

A general view shows solar panels, which are a part of the solar power project at the Faihaa oil field in Basra, Iraq September 11, 2022. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

A general view shows solar panels, which are a part of the solar power project at the Faihaa oil field in Basra, Iraq September 11, 2022. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

A general view shows solar panels, which are a part of the solar power project at the Faihaa oil field in Basra, Iraq September 11, 2022. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

Infrastructure deal in balance

The paralysis is putting at risk major infrastructure projects that the schemes' champions say could shore up water supplies and roll out green energy projects.

In September 2021, Iraq inked an infrastructure development deal with energy giant Total, including solar energy, to the tune of $27 billion. The agreement included funding for projects in the southern region of Basra, where the bulk of Iraq's oil is located.

Salination, damming and drought have ravaged the region's water supplies, resulting in competition over the resource between the oil industry, farmers and citizens, said Maleki.

The Total deal included an investment by the French group in a scheme to inject sea water rather than fresh water into oil fields to enhance crude recovery, and a solar power plant.

The oil project was expected to reduce water pressures in the region by reducing the amount of fresh water being consumed by the oil extraction process, Total said in a statement.

Months later the agreement has stalled, and now risks being cancelled, sources told Reuters earlier this year. 

Finalisation requires approval from different government ministries and sign off from the incoming oil and finance ministers - posts that are yet to be filled due to political tensions.

The political situation may also diminish the oil wealth gained in the past year, with its value eroded by inflation as it languishes in bank accounts, according to the former official, saying billions could be lost.

"We're a vehicle stuck in mud," he said. "We're spinning our tyres, but we're not going anywhere."


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