Climate migrants flee Iraq’s parched rural south, but cities offer no refuge

The UN describes Iraq as the fifth-most-vulnerable country to climate change. Temperatures have increased by 1.8˚C (3.2˚F) in three decades, well above the global average, and in the summers, the mercury now regularly hits 50˚C (122˚F). The heat is burning crops and desiccating marshes. As upstream dams in Turkey and Iran weaken the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a salty tide is creeping north from the Persian Gulf, poisoning the land — and the jobs it once created.

In Iraq, especially the south, the changing climate is forcing families to sell off their livestock and pack up for urban centers such as the region’s largest city, Basra, in search of jobs and better services.

But they find little welcome here.

Embedded in Basra’s troubles is a warning: As hotter, more-crowded cities become the future of a warming world, a lack of preparedness will only exacerbate the discontent already fraying the social fabric.

Basra was once one of Iraq’s jewels, a thriving trade hub where the 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta observed: “No place on earth excels it in quantity of palm groves.” More recently, its freshwater canals and elegant walkways drew comparisons to Venice.

But decades of U.S.-backed sanctions and war, combined with the weight of corruption and neglect, have left Basra’s infrastructure unable to adequately support the 2 million people the city already houses — let alone the rising tide of newcomers.

Oil powers Iraq’s economy, and Basra is at the heart of where most of it is produced, but little of that money seems to trickle down to its inhabitants. Swaths of the city lack street lights or paved roads. In 2018, the water supply was so polluted that it became toxic.

According to official figures, Basra province has a population of over 3 million — an increase of at least 20% in 10 years. And most of that growth has been in its urban areas.

Iraqi authorities have neither tried to connect a growing constellation of informal settlements in the cities to any service grid, nor taken meaningful steps to address the water mismanagement and scarcity that are causing the migration.

Across rural sweeps of the south, families say their migration is existential: Any chance of survival here is evaporating with the water. In a survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council last year, nearly 40% of farmers across the country reported an almost total loss of their wheat crop.

As temperatures keep climbing, the flight from the countryside is only accelerating.

“The families bring blocks and plastic ceilings and then they build,” said Kadhim Atshan, who oversees Dour al-Qiyada, a sprawling shantytown in Basra city built by waves of migration. “But then they find there aren’t jobs, there’s no services. They have to rely on themselves.”

Recently, as heat shimmered on the city’s asphalt, a motorized rickshaw edged slowly out of a makeshift neighborhood and onto gridlocked roads. On the canvas of the rickshaw’s cabin, the owner had summed up his situation.

“My dreams in this country are being lived by a dog in Europe,” the neat white lettering read.

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