UNDP helps drought-stricken Iraq combat effects of climate change

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Baghdad, UNDP - As the destructive effects of climate change become an everyday reality for the people of Iraq and the Middle East, UNDP has been working with governments to implement nationwide projects that help these countries adapt to an ongoing drought that is causing food insecurity, social unrest and cross-boundary tensions over water.

"Iraq has been significantly impacted by climate change already," said Elballa Hagona, Senior Deputy Director and Head of Programmes with UNDP-Iraq. "The country is now coming through the second year of a severe drought - the second such prolonged drought in 10 years - and the fourth year of declining rainfall, some 25 -65 percent of normal levels."

Iraq's wheat production this year was down 45 percent from a normal harvest, with similar reductions expected in the coming year. As a result, the country has experienced a massive loss of seed reserves for future planting, forcing the country to significantly increase food imports at great cost to the economy. Currently, 3.1 percent of Iraq's population is food insecure, meaning they have no guaranteed access to a sufficient amount of food. A further 9.4 percent is in danger of slipping into food insecurity, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Meanwhile, farmers are abandoning their fields en masse and moving to urban centres, a trend that has placed more stress on cities in Iraq that are already struggling to provide basic social services and economic opportunities to growing urban populations. As a result, social tensions and the risk of crime have increased.

In spite of a worsening security situation in the country, UNDP quickly realized the need for projects aimed at helping Iraq to adapt to a new, climate change reality. It is working closely with Iraqi authorities, including the Prime Minister's Advisory Office and the respective ministries for the environment, water resources and the marshlands, to address the issue of climate change adaptation in Iraq on a number of fronts.

At the forefront of UNDP's efforts is a drought response project, which is examining the adequacy of drought responses in the past and pinpointing Iraq's most vulnerable areas and populations. UNDP is also supporting the development of appropriate technical capacities and institutional responses to mitigate future water shortages.

Together with UN's Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UNDP is supporting the development of an effective emergency response capability at both the national and local levels, which includes short-term solutions to disasters related to water supplies.

To address long-term drought adaptation challenges, UNDP is assisting Iraqi authorities with the improved management and use of current water resources, through improved decision-making and water allocation addressing the various scenarios possible with climate change.

"With such diverse climate change challenges in Iraq, we have to tackle the root problems, a need for institutional capacity building and coordination, and develop a comprehensive and sustained response; that is the only solution to such a severe situation," Mr. Hagona noted.

As much of Iraq's water resources originate in neighbouring countries, the Iraqi government has also asked UNDP to facilitate a regional initiative involving the Middle East and neighbouring countries, to share information, knowledge and develop best practices in water management. "Adaptation to climate change should be regional, since environmental changes are affecting the region as a whole, and procedures taken by one country may negatively affect neighbouring countries," said Dr. Hussein Ali Jaber, the Iraqi Prime Minister's Senior Advisor for Agricultural Affairs, at a UNDP-facilitated regional meeting with government officials from neighbouring countries on water and climate change earlier this year.

Global Warming is manifested in Iraq through:

- More frequent and more severe droughts, 2008/09 was the second such prolonged drought period in ten years.

- Declining rainfall over the past four years, with annual precipitation reaching only 25-65 percent of normal levels.

- Increasing scarcity of drinking water in the south, as seawater intrudes on once-plentiful fresh surface and groundwater supplies.

- The unique Southern marshes are shrinking, causing the loss of a globally-important habitat, traditional livelihoods, and future conservation and tourism potential.

- Water purification plants south of Baghdad cannot pump water, because it is too muddy due to low river levels.

- Increasing frequency and severity of dust storms due to low soil moisture, especially evident in the summer of 2009. Not only do these dust storms have serious health consequences and cause loss of human productivity, they may also cause irretrievable desertification in some places.

- Wheat production in 2008/09 was down 45 percent from a normal harvest, with similar reductions expected for the 2009/10 harvest.

- According to Iraqi experts, reoccurring events - drought and dust storms - mark the beginning of the end of the Fertile Crescent, the breadbasket of the Middle East.