Iraqis Displaced by Climate Change Face Deepening Poverty Crisis

Wed Nov 29 2023
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NASIRIYAH, Iraq: In southern Iraq, the relentless impact of climate change is forcing families like Nasser Jabbar’s into a grim cycle of urban poverty.

A decade ago, drought compelled Jabbar, a father of ten, to abandon his rural life as a herder and farmer. Now residing in a shantytown on the outskirts of Nasiriyah, he reflects the harsh reality: “We lost the land and we lost the water.”

The shantytown, emblematic of the extreme poverty facing climate-displaced individuals in south and central Iraq, portrays cracked streets, ramshackle buildings, and open sewers. Many residents, former agricultural workers like Jabbar, left their villages in the face of dwindling rainfall and adverse climate conditions.

Jabbar, who once farmed five hectares of land, tried to resist the encroaching climate challenges. He dug a well, but the water steadily diminished, leading to the heartbreaking sale of his herd of 50 goats. In the city, he found work on construction sites, but back problems forced him to stop, plunging him into three years of unemployment.

Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, poverty remains pervasive. Authorities attribute water scarcity not only to climate change but also to dams built by neighboring Iran and Turkey, affecting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that, as of mid-September, over 130,000 individuals from nearly 22,000 families remain displaced due to drought conditions.

Ghassan al-Khafaji, Dhi Qar’s deputy governor, highlights “significant internal migration” within the province, with thousands of housing units built on the outskirts of Nasiriyah to accommodate those fleeing the southern marshes affected by drought. However, this migration strains employment opportunities and exacerbates unemployment among the youth.

Urban centers, already grappling with limited infrastructure and services, face additional challenges due to rural-to-urban migration. Thomas Wilson, a climate and water specialist at the Norwegian Refugee Council, emphasizes the need for resource management plans, effective governance, and investment in the regions affected by forced migration.

In a country of 43 million, nearly one in five Iraqis resides in areas with water shortages. The UN warns of the risk of “social unrest” due to climate factors, emphasizing the importance of addressing economic opportunities and grievances to prevent tensions and foster sustainable solutions.

Qassem Jabbar, Nasser’s brother, echoes the struggle. After leaving his rural life, back surgery became a luxury he could afford only with donor assistance. With ten children, only two can attend school, illustrating the broader challenge of education affordability in the face of deepening poverty.

As Iraq grapples with the complex interplay of climate change, internal migration, and economic hardship, urgent and comprehensive interventions are crucial to mitigate the impact on vulnerable communities. The narrative of those like Nasser Jabbar and his family underscores the need for a holistic approach to address both immediate needs and long-term resilience in the face of climate-induced displacement.

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