In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, locals are taking matters into their own hands to fight climate change. “In recent years temperatures in Basra have exceeded 50 degrees Centigrade,” explains Alaa Hashim al-Badran, head of the union of agricultural engineers in Basra. “And that is dangerous.”
The ramifications of ongoing climate change mean that the city and its inhabitants may face even higher temperatures in the future. To try and ameliorate the impact, locals have started planting trees. They intend to have planted a million of them shortly, and 16 million in the next few years.
Al-Badran says the idea for a tree-planting campaign was first suggested in the middle of the year and has since progressed rapidly. There are a hundred volunteers and over 15,000 supporters online, he notes, and in the near future, there should be even more people involved.
Citing the example of successful tree planting in Gulf Arab countries, al-Badran and his colleagues believe this may be one of the only ways to prevent Basra from deadly over-heating.
“Over the next few years we plan to plant 16 million trees here,” he told NIQASH. “The first phase starts in September and goes until mid-November. Then we will start again in mid-February and carry on until mid-April next year. The first objective is to plant 1 million trees.”
Trees can help conserve soil and water and they act as carbon sinks, as well as providing shade. The figure of 16 million more trees is thought to be the minimum needed in Basra, in order to have any impact on the heat here.
“Our department supports this campaign to increase green areas,” adds Ahmed Jassim Hanoun, director of the department for the protection of the environment at Basra’s Ministry of the Environment. “Trees will also be used as windbreaks because the barren land suffers from erosion,” he noted.
His ministry suggests that almost three-quarters of the land in central and southern Iraq is suffering the effects of desertification. This is due not only to the mismanagement of the land and the inadequacy of traditional irrigation but also to ongoing drought and climate change.
First up, trees are going to be planted around all Basra’s schools, health institutions and government buildings. Then parks, streets and private residences will be planted. Finally, the plan is to establish green belts near oil fields and other sites where there is enough water – these could eventually become recreational areas, the tree-planters say.
The trees themselves have been carefully chosen for their abilities to survive in harsh environments, says Qassim al-Mashat, a member of the tree-planting campaign. The plants have also been chosen because they grow quickly.
A lot of different groups have been coming forward to join in the campaign and Zeina al-Tamimi, a volunteer, wanted to emphasise that the tree planters had no specific political affiliation. They had come together out of concern about climate change and rising temperatures as well as worries about pollution caused by the oil industry, unplanned construction and the levelling of palm tree forests.
Al-Tamimi says she has been working mainly on informing people about the tree planting. Various pages on Facebook and on the messaging system WhatsApp have proven popular, she says, and the campaign has also passed on information to supporters about which plants grow best in Basra and how to care for them.
“The response has been great,” al-Tamimi says.
And in fact, some of the response has even come from further afield. Hassan Ali Mohammed is a farmer from northern Iraq, based in the Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah. “I recently visited Basra and it was really sad to see the environmental degradation,” he explains. “That is why I donated a thousand seedlings and I would urge all other local plant breeders to donate too, as much as they can.”
The tree planters do face some challenges – things like scarce water supplies, the increasingly saline nature of local waterways and the lack of adequate desalinization plants. But, they hope, they have chosen the trees with the best possible chance to survive in these circumstances.
The success of the campaign can only be assured if everyone takes care of the trees, Mohammed advises the people of Basra. “You must protect the trees from animals and abusers and properly select and plant them,” he concludes.