Published on Arab Voices

In Iraq, mitigating fragility means addressing climate change

Sand storm in Basra city, Iraq, May 2022. (Shutterstock/Mohammed Al Ali) Sand storm in Basra city, Iraq, May 2022. (Shutterstock/Mohammed Al Ali)

On July 28, 2022, temperatures in Baghdad reached a blistering 51.8°C (125.2F) – the hottest day Iraq has ever recorded. Such extreme weather events are bound to become more frequent in Iraq and the broader Middle East. As one of the regions most affected by climate change, temperatures in the Middle East rise twice as fast as the rest of the world. The consequences are severe, including significant water shortage, a large contraction in land under cultivation, and extensive electricity outages.

The World Bank’s 2022 Iraq Climate Change and Development Report (CCDR) portrays the grim interplay between climate change and development. It highlights the consequences of inaction and underscores the need to strengthen adaptive capacities of the public sector, its infrastructure, and the economy. Water scarcity is one of the most visible manifestations of this interplay. The CCDR analyzes the implications of a realistic baseline scenario that would involve a 20% drop in available water resources before mid-century – with potentially non-reversable consequences.

The magnitude of these effects poses multifaceted challenges for fragility and can even create the conditions of conflict and violence. According to the 2021 Ecological Threat Report, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, environmental vulnerability and fragility tend to be interlinked, as 16 out of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change are also those affected by fragility risks. Accordingly, more than half of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are currently mired in conflict. In such fragile contexts, environmental degradation can serve as a “threat multiplier” and intensify ongoing conflicts or even serve as proximate causes for new ones. In the broader Middle East, water has become the second most prominent reason for conflict, just after fossil fuel and energy.

Nevertheless, the interrelationship between climate change and fragility is complex. Climate change rarely causes fragility or conflict directly. Instead, many effects are indirect by exacerbating existing risks or opening novel pathways to cause fragility. The Iraq CCDR offers new insights and evidence into the pathways by which climate change affects risks of fragility and conflict.

First, water scarcity is forcing households or whole communities to migrate, give up their livelihoods, and move to urban areas in search of jobs and income . Households reliant on agriculture are particularly affected as the lack of water leads to crop failure, food insecurity, pollution, and other health risks. Already today, regions such as the South or West Nineveh are suffering from humanitarian crises and displacement due to water scarcity, forcing thousands of families to abandon their livelihoods and migrate.

Such forced displacement can destabilize communities and create the condition for conflicts over scarce resources and services. The potential impact of such migration patterns can most prominently be observed in neighboring Syria. Extensive droughts have caused a wave of migration from rural to urban areas in the mid-2000s, which many observers link to the civil unrest that led to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war.

Second, climate change exacerbates entrenched poverty, which in turn contributes to fragility.  In the likely scenario of a 20% reduction in water supply, the CCDR projects that consumer prices will increase by more than 13%, causing an increase in poverty between 1.6 and 4.4 percentage points. While these numbers may look modest at the national level, they would have significant effects on local communities. To the extent that insufficient governmental responses to environmental shocks will exacerbate climate induced poverty and vulnerabilities, social discontent and mobilization are likely consequences .

Third, with a profound impact on labor markets, climate change will precipitate a shift in Iraq’s social contract.  As the Iraq CCDR discusses, the agricultural sector remains the second most important source of employment for the poor after construction despite its low incomes. Yet the agricultural sector will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change as the projected water scarcity will reduce the demand for unskilled labor by 11.5% in the medium term. In the absence of a labor market transition that opens economic opportunities outside the public sector, these developments risk leaving many additional households without any form of social protection or opportunities for upward social mobility.

Such developments coincide with transitions in other segments of the labor market. The Iraq CCDR stresses that the broader global transition away from fossil fuels will eventually weaken the demand for Iraq’s oil exports.  As oil revenues account for more than 90% of state revenues and thereby finance the country’s expansive public sector, global pressure to reduce carbon emissions will eventually constrain the resources available for public employment. Government jobs, however, play a key role within Iraq’s social contract and labor market. They are a key source of patronage and provide high-skilled workers with job opportunities and their households with social protection. While reducing the size of the public sector to sustainable levels must be an urgent priority for Iraq’s political leadership, its reduction will challenge the relationship between citizens and the state and must be accompanied by a strategy to diversify the economy.

In such ways, Iraq highlights how complex and entrenched the intersection between climate change and fragility is – and how important it is to address it. To that effect, the CCDR outlines a US$233 billion investment program until 2040 as well as a set of policy recommendations to manage a transition to a low-carbon and resilient economy  following the World Bank’s green, resilient and inclusive development framework.

Exemplifying the challenges of many other countries vulnerable to environmental degradation, the case of Iraq highlights how mitigating fragility requires addressing the impact of climate change.


Mounir Mahmalat

Country Coordinator for Fragility, Conflict, & VIolence Practice Group of World Bank

Ali Ahmad

Senior Energy Consultant

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