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Jun 26, 2014

Promise over Peril: Can Iraq's environment thrive amidst the chaos?

Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan near Mt. Pire Megrun, along the Qal'ah Chulan river, photo by Carina Roselli 2013.

It is difficult to regard Iraq as a “post-conflict” country when whole cities are falling to turmoil and terrorism. At times like this, it is important to acknowledge and support those in Iraq who are fighting to improve their difficult situation in less poignant but still critical arenas, like the environment. Five of these people – a delegation of scientists and analysts from Iraq’s Ministries of Environment and Planning – visited Yale in early June to discuss Iraq’s rank on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

In the 2012 EPI, Iraq came in last out of 132 countries and in 2014 the country ranked 149 out of 178 countries. (The apparent improvement was in part driven by the addition of poorly performing small-island states and many sub-Saharan African countries). Iraq’s failing sparked a conversation within Iraq’s Government, in particular the still-young Ministry of Environment, which was formed in 2003, and the Ministry of Planning, the government agency responsible for much of the statistical data collection in Iraq. Government representatives assembled an Iraqi national EPI team to dig deeper into the EPI, its indicators and data, to understand why Iraq’s score was so low. After reaching out to the EPI team at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy in the summer of 2013, the Iraqi delegation arrived in New Haven almost a year later to understand how they could improve their standing in the international EPI ranking.

(Iraq delegation from Ministries of Environment and Planning with the Environmental Performance Index team at Yale University, June 2014)

Iraq's Environmental Performance

Where does Iraq perform well and where can they stand to further improve? In examining Iraq’s performance in the 2014 EPI, there are some trends that stand out. While the country has seen improvements in several Environmental Health indicators, including reductions in Child Mortality and increasing access to both Sanitation and Clean Water, Iraq’s scores in the Ecosystem Vitality objective are primarily responsible for their overall low EPI score. While receiving “passes” on Fisheries (for having a negligible coastline relative to land area) and Forests (for having less than 200 sq. km. of forested area), Iraq scores near the bottom in every other issue category.

In particular, Iraq’s performance on Air Quality and Biodiversity and Habitat were among the worst in the world. Part of Iraq’s poor performance in the Biodiversity and Habitat category is due to the unavoidable lag between when countries pass relevant environmental laws and when they submit them to international data stewards like the UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre. With respect to agriculture, although the delegation said that Iraq adopted national regulations on the “dirty dozen” persistent organic pollutants (POPs), these commitments have not been officially registered with the Stockholm Convention, and consequently were not scored in the 2014 EPI. The gap between national efforts and international agencies responsible for collating countries’ data is an unfortunate reality for the EPI research process, which relies on these global, intergovernmental bodies to act as clearinghouses for data.

Air quality is another issue where Iraq performed poorly. In addition to ranking in the bottom 20 of air pollution (measured in terms of average exposure to fine particulate pollution, or PM 2.5, and PM 2.5 exceedance levels), Iraq’s performance has declined over the last decade. According to Iraq’s National Environmental Strategy and Action Plan (NESAP) increased air pollution is attributed to natural causes, such as dust storms, and human-induced factors, including the increased number of personal vehicles in Iraq, increased use of diesel generators due to disruptions and shortages in electricity, and waste incineration. With nearly 70 percent of Iraqis living in urban areas, air pollution is of particular concern for a large portion of the population. Recent data from the World Health Organization on PM2.5 in cities did not have a single data source for Iraqi cities, demonstrating a major gap in environmental data that could help track Iraq’s air quality performance.

(Power plant outside Baghdad, Iraq photo by Carina Roselli 2009)

Signs of Progress

Despite evidence of significant environmental deterioration, Iraq has taken important first steps toward building a framework to address its pressing environmental concerns. For example, Iraq has established a series of new environmental policies, protected areas, and education efforts.  Beginning in 2007, Iraq passed 27 national laws relating to the environment and  joined several important international environmental treaties on desertification (UNCCD), climate (UNFCCC), biodiversity (CBD), wetlands (RAMSAR), and hazardous waste (Basel Convention), among others.

Though laws are critical in establishing rules and guidelines, putting in place the implementation systems necessary to create an impact on the ground is where environmental performance is truly measured. In 2013, Iraq launched its National Environmental Strategy and Action Plan (NESAP) to establish new management policies and prioritize its environmental restoration programs for the 2013 to 2017 period.  In April of this year, Iraq also released its fifth national report to the CBD and is in the process of developing its first National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan as part of its commitments to the treaty.

One significant accomplishment was the designation in July 2013 of Iraq’s Central Marshes as the country’s first national park and protected area.  Now, the Ministry of Environment is in the process of declaring another 18 protected areas throughout the country (1467 km2 or 0.33% of Iraq’s total land area), and its submission to UNESCO to declare Iraq’s southern marshes as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has already passed through several phases of consideration. Also, Iraq recently discovered living coral reef along its 36-mile coastline, and the Ministry of Environment is looking at ways to designate the reef as a marine protected area.

To raise education and awareness about environmental issues plaguing the country, the Iraqi Government announced that 2014 is the "Year of the Environment" in Iraq and the Ministry has launched a series of events. Iraq’s declaration is meant to garner cross-ministry support and partnerships to achieve the goals set out in Iraq’s NESAP. With this news, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) also recommitted their support to sustainable development in Iraq. Furthermore, in January 2014, the Iraqi Government signed a new five-year Strategic Cooperation Agreement with UNEP to promote environmental peacebuilding and to bolster Iraq’s capacity to overcome its many environmental challenges.

(Regulator on a canal in central Iraq photo by Carina Roselli 2009)

Room for Improvement

Iraq’s Ministries of Environment and Planning demonstrated both attention to detail and willingness to improve. Despite their hard work, obvious challenges remain in terms of how environmental measures link to broader issues of governance and security.

Decentralization with coordination – Iraq is undergoing a process of devolution of decision-making power to the fifteen sub-national governorates (three more are separately governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq). While decentralization is helpful in rooting decisions in a local context, it is important that environmental policies stem from unified standards that can be coordinated at an ecosystem scale across political boundaries.

Potential for micro-grids – Owing to tenuous security issues, the centralized electricity grid is at high risk from terrorism and other disruptions. Instead of trying to rebuild a single grid, Iraq could consider a decentralized micro-grid system, which might improve overall efficiency and resiliency of the system and enhance utility services. The ministries hope to have all of Iraq on an electrical grid system by 2015, which would significantly reduce the need for in-home diesel generators and the air pollution they produce. Whether they can achieve this goal depends greatly on the country’s security situation throughout 2014.

Enhancing public transportation – Owing to greater personal freedoms, Iraq has more vehicles on the road today than in the past several decades. The increase in vehicles has significantly added to Iraq’s air pollution, and the country does not yet have a functional public transportation system, also owing, in part, to fears of terrorism targeting and disrupting a central system. Developing a network of public transportation depends on Iraq’s security situation going forward.

Water scarcity – Desertification and diminished water levels in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers are a significant threat to Iraq’s population and economy. The Iraqi Government estimates that water reserves are down to 20 percent capacity. The United Nations estimates that Iraq will experience a water shortage of over 33 million cubic meters per year by 2015 if environmental conditions and poor resource management persist. Iraq’s rivers are particularly complex to manage because they are both transboundary (sharing waters with Turkey, Syria, and Iran) and federally regulated within Iraqi Kurdistan before flowing downstream to the rest of Iraq.

(Dukan, Iraqi Kurdistan, on the edge of Lake Dukan, photo by Carina Roselli 2013)

A Greener Iraq?

With 90 percent of its GDP coming from oil exports, Iraq is at an immediate disadvantage on the EPI because CO2 production per capita is so correspondingly high. Despite this disadvantage, Iraq’s delegation came prepared to improve the country’s EPI score. They had an ultimate interest in improving their data quality to build support for environmental policy and implementation throughout the government. Moving forward, the delegation expressed its interest in developing a national-level EPI, which would build off priorities identified in public consultation processes, and could be customized to include new indicators and sub-national data gathering mechanisms.

This approach would serve to improve data and monitoring capacity to measure and make progress on environmental goals, but the real hurdle is how to implement these environmental programs when Iraq remains caught in a violent “post-conflict” transition.  Nonetheless, Iraq’s environmental champions press on, and perhaps their resolve will serve as a model for the rest of the country’s struggling government to achieve broader development and security goals.