By Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq
26 February 2013
The heavy rains and flooding this winter, which caused severe damage to infrastructure and forced the displacement of thousands of families, especially in Salaheddine province, were a stark reminder of how destructive and dramatic an impact intensifying and more extreme weather conditions can have on a country’s economy and its citizens’ health and lives.
Now it is quickly getting warmer and the rain has stopped, but as those of us who live here know all too well, the blue skies will soon be clouded again by another environmental phenomenon: the dust-storms that will be raging again in spring and summer. Airports and border crossing points will again be closed, communication infrastructure will break down, goods worth millions of dollars will be lost, and hospitals will be overburdened with patients with respiratory problems caused by dust.
Everyone will be affected. Dust-storms do not care about nationality, age, religion and ethnicity. The six-year-old daughter of my Iraqi colleague whose school closes because of the dust and the political leaders who cannot travel because air traffic becomes impossible are both affected.
Sand and dust-storms have become a major problem in Iraq over the past years and the situation is not getting any better. While in 2008, 122 dust-storms were recorded in Iraq, it is estimated that 300 of them could sweep the country every year within the next 10 years. Their growing intensity and frequency is a result of increasing desertification and decreasing vegetation coverage, of continuing environmental degradation.
Dust-storms do not recognize boundaries either and, of course, Iraq is not the only country affected by them. This is why, along with the Iraqi Minister of Environment, I attended a ministerial meeting on sand and dust-storms in the Middle East in Nairobi, Kenya, last week, which was organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). I urged the participating ministers and other representatives of Ministries of Environment from the region to be committed and creative in addressing the issue. We were all there because we share the same vision: we care about the environment and we are trying to make a difference.
I advocated for greenbelts in Iraq and, along with several regional countries, supported the appeal of UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner to establish a regional environmental trust fund. Instead of losing large parts of national wealth because of dust-storms, what if Iraq and other countries of the region were using all this money to prevent them? Allocating money for environmental issues is often simply a matter of setting priorities.
Combating dust-storms will not favour any one group more than another. This natural phenomenon disregards any political or sectarian differences. In this regard, dust-storms are also an opportunity for dialogue. I stressed my strong belief that one or two governments alone will not make a difference and that all have to unite, all have to work together. Protecting the environment is a global duty in which every country, every individual, should be involved, and politicians have to live up to their responsibilities.
Naturally, in Iraq, the political crisis has been first and foremost on everybody’s minds during the past couple of months. It has preoccupied us all, but should not be an excuse to neglect giving urgent attention to environmental issues. Iraq has suffered three terrible wars, decades of sanctions and years of brutal dictatorship, which damaged the country’s social fabric and economy. The environment took a big hit, too, and was degraded, and we cannot think about progress, prosperity and growth in Iraq if we do not work to address this. The environment is central to recovery and sustainable development, central to the future of the country.
As the country leaves behind its past and sets sail for new horizons, the environment must play a big role in efforts to harness Iraq’s natural resources and the power of its youth to pave the way to a brighter future. Iraq, a centre part of the historical Fertile Crescent, has been dealing with intense weather episodes, with dramatic consequences on economy and health. I therefore ask the Iraqi leaders today to address the issue of dust-storms and make the environment a priority, as an essential step in ensuring the well-being of the nation tomorrow, for the sake of future generations.