As the world increasingly turns its attention to the catastrophic consequences of climate change, Gulf countries seems to get ready to face the upcoming challenges, joining global initiatives and planning new projects on a regional and local scale. Even before the latest UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow, Saudi Arabia had launched the Middle East Green Initiative and the Saudi Green Initiative, pledging to reach net-zero carbon emission by 2060. On the other hand, the UAE, which had instead pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, announced that they will organise the COP28 in 2023, one year after Egypt, which will host COP27 in 2022. Despite the infra-Gulf competition for investments in the green economy and accusations of ‘greenwashing’ raised by some activists and environmental organisations against top oil producers, regional leaders have become more sensitive to an issue that is already manifesting disruptive symptoms.
Climate change is indeed the main cause of the water scarcity in Iraq, one of the most vulnerable countries in the region. On 2 December the Ministry of Water Resources published a worrying report saying that by 2040 the Tigris and Euphrates could run dry. According to the report, the land between the two rivers is likely to see a decrease of water intake up to 30% of the current levels by 2035.
Considering that the total water consumption needs of the country amount to approximately 53 billion cubic metres annually, it is likely that the incoming water crisis would result in Iraq receiving only 11 billion cubic metres annually. The impact has already been felt in many areas: according to a recent report published by the Norwegian Refugee Council one in two families in the provinces most affected by draughts and water scarcity requires food assistance, whereas one in five families does not have enough food to feed everyone in their family.
While the World Bank warns that water could not reach one third of the irrigated lands in Iraq by 2050 if the temperature rises by 1°C as expected and precipitation decreases by 10%, it is highly likely that climate change will hit the agricultural sector (which constitutes 5% of the GDP and employs 20% of the total labour force) particularly hard, forcing displacement from rural areas.
On the other hand, the external repercussions of the water crisis are already evident, as tensions between riparian states continue to escalate. In early December the Iraqi government announced it had completed procedures to submit a case to the International Court of Justice against Iran’s water policy, accusing Tehran of reducing the water flow from local tributaries to the Tigris and Euphrates.
Construction of dams upstream has added a further layer of complexity to the already tense relations between Iran, Iraq and Turkey, but it is likely that the issue will exacerbate even further as climate change becomes a driving force moving at the intersection between regional and domestic politics, constantly eroding the legitimacy of long-standing regimes.
Indeed, also Iran is suffering from an acute water crisis that has caused protests in Isfahan and Ahvaz in November after local rivers ran dry over mismanagement and declining rainfall levels, creating unusual apprehension in Tehran.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region