Is Climate Change Destabilizing Iraq?

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June 27 2014 12:10 PM

Hot Zone

Is climate change destabilizing Iraq?

(Continued from Page 1)

Much of Iraq’s climate is similar to California’s Central Valley, with a long summer dry season and a rainier, more productive winter. That’s helped Iraq serve as the breadbasket of the region for millennia, but no longer. Like Bakersfield, Baghdad is intensely dependent on river water from upstream for irrigation of most of its crops. After decades of war, not nearly as much water is getting through.

This year’s major drought has coincided with the rise of ISIS, which has already used dams as a weapon of war, threatening downstream agriculture and electricity production during its march to gain control of vast swaths of territory in Syria and northern Iraq. From Al Arabiya:

In Iraq, ISIS, reportedly in control of the strategic Mosul dam, has declared its intention to deprive Shiite regions from water. Further electricity shortages hit Southern Iraq, where the consecutive governments have failed in restoring basic services since 2003.
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The declines in rainfall already seen in Syria and Iraq are on the order of scientists’ predictions but have generally come faster than climate models anticipated. According to retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, the combination of worsening drought and violent conflict now spreading across the region “is a classic case of unintended and unforeseen consequences.”

For all the debate over climate change, those in the national security realm are moving surprisingly full-speed ahead. In this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon listed the impacts of climate change, like drought, as “threat multipliers.” As Femia put it, “the U.S. military doesn’t have the luxury of planning for the short term.” Now that the Department of Defense has listed climate change as a national security threat, Femia says, “they have an obligation and duty to address those issues.”

For Femia, the way forward in Iraq and other parts of the region is by working at reducing one of the root drivers of Middle East conflict: water scarcity.

In post conflict situations, issues of disarmament and new political foundations and the relationship between various ethnic groups, those are all critical and need to be part of any solution. But if conflict resolution doesn’t involve natural resource management, you’re setting the stage for future instability.

The government of Iraq has named 2014 as a national Year of Environment in an attempt to prioritize the rehabilitation of the country’s degraded lands after years of conflict. Let’s hope they’re not too late.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Correction, June 27, 2014: Due to an editing error, the credit for the map of land and ocean temperature percentiles misspelled the name of the National Climatic Data Center.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.

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