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Water Scarcity and Environmental Displacement in Southern Iraq: Perceptions and Realities

By Tiba Fatli

This paper argues that climate change interacts and plays along with other factors that worsen environmental crisis and induce forced movement in southern Iraq. It makes the point that to understand and address environmental-induced displacement, scholars and policy-makers need to listen and understand the perceptions of those most impacted by climate change as their experiences differ from institutionalised narratives. It concludes by urging scholars in the field to integrate displaced people not only in understanding displacement but also in finding practical solutions to climate change and displacement.

Photo Credit: Tiba Fatli.

Water Scarcity and Displacement

While there has been growing literature on environmental issues and displacement since the 1970s and 1980s, there is considerable uncertainty of local perceptions of climate change, its impact on movement, and policy (Brown 2007; Dessai; O’Brien; Hulme 2007). Particularly absent in the discussion of policy responses are the opinions of people displaced by environmental issues related to climate change. In effect, the loudest voices in this conversation, supposedly about a changing environment, are those farthest removed from shifting ecosystems. Current policy approaches to climate-induced refugees are not practical and are ineffective.

My research demonstrates that local government officials and international experts remain focused on water conservation measures while displaced persons—farmers and marsh dwellers—advocate for action on climate change as a result of their displacement. To craft appropriate policy related to water-induced displacement, particularly under the threat of climate change, we must understand this issue’s complexity and the different perceptions to contextualise the different factors that impact water resources, while paying special attention to the knowledge and experience of displaced people whose lived experiences often differ from institutionalised narratives on resource management. Considering their opinions may push policy-makers away from a management heavy response that preserves the current refugee regime and towards addressing the root cause of movement—climate change.

The data is derived from around 60 semi-structured interviews the author conducted with environmentally displaced families, local activists, and policy-makers in southern Iraq (Map 1 and 2). The purpose of this is to provide an understanding of how those who are directly affected by water scarcity perceive the causes of the scarcity, and how officials who are working on policies related to water and the environment perceive water scarcity. These perceptions are analysed alongside data on various factors that impact water scarcity in order to identify knowledge gaps and policy-making consequences. This fieldwork examines how the gap between displaced communities’ understandings of climate change and that of local policy-makers differ, thus limiting the impact of the latter’s attempts to prevent further displacement. Generally, the difference in perceptions and understandings of water scarcity and displacement shows the complexity of water-induced displacement in which stakeholders – whether displaced populations, local government officials, federal policy-makers, non-governmental organisations or international development organisations – focus on particular factors of water scarcity.

As the world is expected to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter in as little as 11 years, slow and sudden-onset environmental changes such as decreased rainfall and increased heatwaves are expected to occur with increasing severity (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2018). Desertification, dwindling water resources, land degradation, and drought are decreasing the size of arable land and herd size in southern Iraq, and slowly making parts of the region inhabitable and difficult for traditional livelihoods. These weather events, Jane McAdams argues, form ‘push’ factors for farmers and animal herders in southern Iraq to migrate, largely within the country, displacing people permanently. Climate change does not alone produce water scarcity; it interacts with political and internal factors that continue to exacerbate the water crisis in the south of Iraq and force people to move (Mayer 2018).

Map 1. Fieldwork sites. Each of the pins represents a location of fieldwork site with community members.

Map 2. Water crisis by location in southern Iraq (IOM 2018).

A Continuing History of Environmental Displacement in Southern Iraq

Throughout contemporary history, water problems have played a role in the forced movements of Iraq – a country of 40 million people (World Bank 2019). Eight years of war with Iran, the Gulf War, and decade-long sanctions in the 1990s severely damaged Iraq’s water systems (Nagy 2001; GLEICK 1993). The Ba’athist government’s extensive and profound campaign draining 90% Iraq’s marshes further severely impacted Iraq’s water resources (Azzam et al. 2004). Environmental-induced displacement during the 1990s, however, was temporary compared to the current displacement. The main source of water was intentionally diverted in 1990, which resulted in the displacement of the majority of marsh dweller, who were later able to return to their land post 2003 when the marshes were restored (Curtis et al. 2006; Wetland International 2016).

Post 2003, severe weather conditions worsened Iraq’s water crisis. Failure of adequate water services was compounded by a severe drought in 2007, significantly hindering Iraqis’ access to water (IOM 2012). Those who could not adapt to the increased scarcity, find alternative livelihoods sources, or afford to buy water were forced to move. In 2007, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) reported that a decline in safe drinking water and sustainable water supplies coupled with the 2007 severe drought forced 20,000 rural inhabitants in southern Iraq to leave their agricultural communities in search of water. This driver of displacement in Iraq happened in a setting where many Iraqis were being displaced following the 2003 US occupation (Sassoon 2008). Meanwhile, 5,347 families fled southern Iraq citing water scarcity (IOM 2019). The drivers of displacement were compounded by damaged infrastructure, loss of economic opportunities, and pressure of dwindling natural resources. Iraqi forced displacement was not only a product of the insecurity in the country, but also a result of not being able to access basic services, particularly access to water (FMR 2007).

In the past year alone, water-induced displacement in southern Iraq has increased by almost 50%; a total of 5,347 families have been displaced so far (IOM 2019). Thi-Qar governorate is the most affected by water-induced displacement, which as McAdam predicted, is largely internal displacement. Of those that IOM is tracking, around 79% of families were displaced to urban areas (2,790 families) with only 21% to rural areas (757 families) (IOM 2019).

My fieldwork reveals two types of water-induced displacement in Southern Iraq. First, farmers with longstanding tribal claims to land sell their farms and move to urban centres as their lands become not arable. Second, nomadic marsh dwellers are no longer able to rely on the wetlands to meet their livelihoods; their buffalos die, fish populations collapse, and water becomes scarce and polluted. And while internal movement within the wetlands has long characterised the lives of marsh dwellers, communities view their current movement as ‘forced’ and permanent.

Beyond these generalisations there are many adaptation strategies as people seek to remain in their homes. Farmers bought buffalo and some marsh dwellers worked the land. However, I heard an overwhelming number of stories of families who had tried both and were packing up anyway. The permanence and significance of these internal migrations is illustrated by two quotes my informants shared. One farmer said ‘we don’t sell our land.’ A marsh dweller said ‘when our buffalo die, we die.’ Unlike displacement in the 1990s—neither group will return anytime soon. As Brown argues, migration is not the first response to climate change, other non-climatic factors interact with and worsen existing problems before people decide to move (Brown 2007).

Local Perceptions of Causes of Water Scarcity

There are three main perceived causes of water scarcity and displacement within southern Iraq among local government official, farmers, and buffalo breeders that were stressed throughout the fieldwork. First, marsh dwellers and farmers heavily stressed environmental factors as a cause of water scarcity and displacement. Their main grievances and perception of the catastrophic state of water in their homeland is closely linked to the lack of rainfall and necessary evaporation, and extreme heat waves. There were four years of severe droughts between 2005 and 2017 that were consistently cited throughout interviews: 2005, 2008, 2015, and 2017. These drought dates were identified by marsh dwellers during fieldwork and corroborated by data gathered from the Ministry of Transportation (see Figures 1, 2, 3 and 4). For displaced people and those on the verge of displacement, these environmental changes constituted a direct and obvious cause that was often characterised as being ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unsolvable’, and ‘irreversible’. Buffalo breeders and farmers who have resided within southern Iraq their entire lives understand the changing climatic conditions as a regional phenomenon occurring not just within the state boundaries of Iraq but beyond as well.

Indeed, southern Iraq experienced its hottest summers and the worst droughts in the years 2007, 2008-2009, 2014-2015, and 2017 (Barlow et la. 2016; Barlow et la 2015; Chulov 2009; Pearce 2009). This impacted irrigation seasons, led to an abandonment of farmlands, and killed animals in the region. Beginning in 2008, Iraq experienced significant increases in the length of dry seasons, substantially decreasing the period of time during which the rangelands are grazable. Farmers have coped by increasing importation of water and feedstuffs and decreasing their herd sizes (Evans 2008). Since 2012, of Iraq’s 28% arable land, 1,000 sqm was lost each year to degradation. Meanwhile, 39% of Iraq’s surface was estimated to have been affected by desertification, with an additional 54% under threat (Webrelief 2012). IOM found that in 2012, 40% of Iraq’s total cropland had suffered a significant reduction in productivity and livestock was devastated (IOM 2012).

Figures 1, 2, and 3. Average Annual Rainfall in Fieldwork Governorates as recorded by the Meteorology and Seismic Monitoring Centre Iraq’s Ministry of Transportation that the author collected during fieldwork.

Figure 4. Average Annual Rainfall in Fieldwork Governorates as recorded by the

Meteorology and Seismic Monitoring Centre Iraq’s Ministry of Transportation.

Second, local government officials in all filed sites stressed the impact of dam building outside of Iraq’s borders, which they perceived to be related to Turkey and Iran’s control of the upstream water flow of transboundary water resources. While officials downplayed or outright rejected the implication of climate change, they frequently highlighted international factors in light of aggressive, politically driven Turkish and Iranian development practices that are, thereby advocating for a regional water management agreement. Displaced farmers and marsh dwellers, however, conceptualised the construction of large infrastructure projects as a response to regional climate change and a form of adaption. They understood Turkey as preserving water resources to adapt to climate change, albeit not being as vulnerable as Iraq.

The annual discharge of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers has been in steady decline and the discharge is predicted to be reduced by 9.5% by 2040 (Bozkur et la 2013; see Map 3). Water flow has severely impacted southern Iraq. Upstream construction projects have increased since the 1960s, contributing to the reduction of the flow of the two rivers by approximately 80% (Wilson 2012). Iraq and its neighbouring countries have a long history of tensions over dam construction and failed water agreements (Aysegül, Tugba 2014). These tensions are once again coming to a head as the entire fertile crescent is threatened by warming climate (Behrooz 2004; Financial Tribute 2017).

Map 3. Dams on the Tigris and Euphrates River Basin (Homles 2010).

Third, Iraqis cited internal governance and mismanagement of water services. The exact nature of their issue depended on their location, geographically—along the course of rivers—and socially. Marsh dwellers and farmers raised particular issues with not receiving their fair share of water. For them, this violates the annual water distribution plan that is issued on a yearly basis by the Ministry of Water Resources. This leaves the ‘southern region in general and the marshes in particular with the last drop of the rivers’ (Interview with marsh dweller 2017). Nonetheless, displaced farmers and marsh dwellers acknowledged and sympathized with those who ‘impinge’ on others, who use water pumps to take more than the quota allotted to them by the federal government to meet their water needs given the scarcity of water (Images 1, 2 and 3). Thus, while communities acknowledge that internal management of water resources is an issue, they perceive it as an unintended consequence of climate change and its impacts on water scarcity. Policy-makers, on the other hand, perceive ‘impingement’ or unlicensed water pumps as ‘water theft’. Water scarcity was understood as a political matter of internal governance failure, with water shortages experienced only during the dry season, rather than an issue of climate change. For them, the largest factor in seasonal water shortage is unequal distribution of water resources between and within governorates and the lack of innovative irrigation techniques in Iraq, deeming Iraqi farmers ‘lazy…uncivilized and [too] inept to learn new methods of irrigation’ (Interview with local official 2017).

Image 1. Impingement: an unlicensed pump taking water from a canal in Al Qadyysiah. Photo taken during the fieldwork by the author.

Image 2 and 3. Southern Iraq’s water management infrastructures have not fully recovered from the dual threats of war and climate change. Many canals have been destroyed and the canals that do exist are unmaintained and hold little water. Photos taken by the author.

Towards a Just Policy Approach

Current policy-making on climate change and displacement is exclusionary. It has not attempted to include those most impacted by climate change in the discussion, nor does it address the root causes of environmental-induced displacement (Dehm 2018). The two most often discussed solutions to environmental-induced displacement, a new legal regime for climate refugees or expanding already existing migration policy, do not address the issue at its roots: climate change. Both can potentially create another exclusionary international migration governance regime, akin to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and do not have the capacity of addressing grievances of current and anticipated 150 to 300 million climate-displaced people in five years (Chimni 1998; Gemenne 2011). According to UNHCR figures, out of the current 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, only 25.9 million are recognised refugees and have international protection under international refugee law. UNHCR, the UN agency mandated to provide international protection to refugees, carries out refugee status determination procedures largely in the global south. Adding environmentally displaced persons to this system is beyond the organisation’s legal mandate and capacity. On the other hand, a new global regime, as Jane McAdam argues, will not ‘solve’ the humanitarian issue due to conceptual and pragmatic difficulties (McAdam 2011). Perhaps, more importantly, drafting a treaty necessitates defining who falls within and outside of the scope of application of a movement that has not been fully conceptualised and understood.

Based on my findings, those closest to their changing ecosystems have the most profound understanding of the complexity of the issue on both a local and regional level and should be included in a participatory policy-making. Policy-making on both a national and international level needs a community-based policy approach. On a domestic level, displaced Iraqis are demanding inclusive development and participatory approach to national water governance (this can be in the form of public forums, representations in local councils, being included in the annual water management plan). The realm of policy-making on an international level is limited. Displaced people in southern Iraq highlight the finality of climate change, and that to address their displacement is to address the warming climate. As such, international organisations, policy-makers, and governments have to approach migration and environmental policy in light of anthropogenic climate change; they need to advocate and set in place equitable and fair environmental policies that place regulations on the extractive world economy that treat nature as a finite resource.

Tiba Fatli has a B.A in International Affairs from the State University of New York at Geneseo and an M.A. in Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo where she heavily researched climate change and forced migration. Tiba has worked with a number of NGOs including Foundation for Sustainable Development in Uganda, the Danish Refugee Council in Iraq and the UNHCR in Egypt in the protection field and was a recipient of the Mellon Foundation research fellowship at the American University in Cairo. She currently works with the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York, US.


Interview with Marsh Dweller (2017) interview with author, December 2017.

Interview with Local Official (2017) interview with author, December 2017.


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