Today is World Environment Day – but this has had no impact whatsoever on Iraqi politicians. The country, where human agriculture began, continues to teeter on the brink of environmental catastrophe. Blinded by political game playing, local MPs just don’t care.
Despite political conflicts in Iraq, politicians there do all have one thing in common: an indifference to, and ignorance of, the environmental problems that plague the country. Some of the major environmental issues the country has include drought and desertification, lack of drinking water and water pollution, radiation contamination and problems with mined explosives. And these are getting worse year after year.
Environmental agencies in Iraq have been very critical of their government’s response to these kinds of issues and many of them have chosen June 5, designated World Environment Day by the United Nations, to make their opinions known.
“For a long time our leaders have only cared about politics and the murky environs in which they work,” Baghdad journalist Adel Fakher, who has written about environmental issues in Iraq, says. “But they’ve paid no attention to the murky environmental problems that affect the lives and the health of ordinary Iraqis. They’ve not taken sufficient measures on environmental issues and they do not co-operate with international organizations enough.”
The environmental problems that Iraq now has, or that the country will have, have been a long time coming. Additionally the government’s critics believe that politicians have turned a blind eye to reports by international organizations about some of these problems. Even some officials agree.
“The situation with Iraq’s environment is not very encouraging,” Mustafa Hamid, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Environment tells NIQASH. “There are a lot of things that piled up during the former era [of Saddam Hussein’s leadership] and these have never been addressed. Solutions will need time too. Additionally ongoing political conflicts have an impact – they influence the work of all state departments and cast their shadows over the environment.”
Iraqi MPs are too wound up in ongoing political conflicts to focus on the environment, which tends to be seen as a peripheral issue. “I have attended many political meetings – and there are a lot of meetings – but I’ve never heard any official touch on the environment, or even the weather,” independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, tells NIQASH; Othman has been participating in Iraqi politics since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, that toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. “They only meet to discuss their own, internal conflicts,” he concludes.
In order for the government to make some decisions about these environmental problems, “decisions must be taken by higher authorities,” Iraq’s Minister of the Environment, Sarkoun Slewa, admits. But, as he notes, “the problem in Iraq is that there are unending political conflicts and these keep everyone busy. Certainly they distract them from environmental issues and from dealing with natural disasters, which require significantly more effort. But now,” he warns, “there is a serious need for genuine effort to stop continued degradation of the environment here.”
This is evidenced by such things as the increasing number of dust storms in Iraq. As the Los Angeles Times reported as far back as 2009, the dust storms are the “most visible manifestation” of Iraq’s environmental catastrophe. “Decades of war and mismanagement, compounded by two years of drought, are wreaking havoc on Iraq's ecosystem, drying up riverbeds and marshes, turning arable land into desert, killing trees and plants, and generally transforming what was once the region's most fertile area into a wasteland,” the LA Times wrote then.
Locals agree that over the past decade dust storms have increased in frequency and intensity. Instead of just hitting once a year, now there’s a dust storm almost every month, they say. The main causes: desertification of the surrounding countryside and a severe drought, that has left arable land barren – especially in the areas of Ninawa, Karbala and Diyala - and added to desertification.
Another problem is water. This is one of the only environmental issues that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has commented on publicly. Once again, the shortage of water is due to drought – but it is also due to the change in the paths of waterways in neighbouring countries. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, both of which originate in Turkey, are the main sources of Iraqi water but in recent years new Turkish dams have blocked the flow of water to the country. Likewise, Iranian dams have cut down water supplies flowing into the country resulting in the loss of key farming and drinking water.
The Iraqi environment also bears the scars of the decades of war and various military conflicts. Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment estimates that the current number of explosive mines in the ground in Iraq numbers around 20 million – that is equal to one quarter of all mines in the world – and these have a devastating effect on the country, especially in the agricultural sector and on infrastructure projects.
Research by various Iraqi government agencies in 2010 has also found that certain provinces around Iraq showed high levels of ionising radiation, a suspected legacy of depleted uranium used in munitions.
Despite all of this though, there don’t seem to be many hopeful signs that the Iraqi government is any closer to paying attention to the environment. “There are slogans from the government,’ Fakher points out, “but no tangible steps have been taken.”