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Iraq's environment, water supply in severe decline - report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 27 Jan 2014 12:16 GMT
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An Iraqi Marsh Arab collects reeds at the Chebayesh marsh in Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, on February 15, 2013. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Iraq is losing between 5 and 8 percent of its gross domestic product to environmental degradation each year, while the amount of water available per person has dropped by more than half since the late 1970s, according to a new government study.

Backed by the United Nations and the World Bank, the report found that Iraq’s environment has suffered severe decline in recent years due to decades of war, a growing population and increasing pressure on natural resources.

The quality and quantity of the country’s water has been harmed by upstream damming, pollution, climate change and inefficient usage, and its cropland is shrinking, the Arabic-language study said.

The amount of water available per person per year fell from 5,900 cubic metres in 1977 to 2,400 cubic metres in 2009 - a situation made worse by droughts between 2005 and 2009.

The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Iraq’s two major sources of surface water, could dry up by 2040 if current conditions continue, the report warned.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Sunday it had signed a five-year strategic cooperation agreement with the Iraqi government aimed at strengthening efforts to overcome many of the country's environmental challenges.

The programme will focus on environmental legislation and regulation, conserving biodiversity, developing a green economy, making production cleaner, more efficient resource use, combating dust storms, and climate change reporting and action, UNEP said in a statement.

“Achieving sustainable development is by no means a light undertaking, especially after decades of wars, sanctions and environmental degradation," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said on his first-ever visit to Iraq. "Rebuilding Iraq’s environmental infrastructure underpins the country’s recovery and peace-building efforts.”

Iraq is considered to be one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the Arab region, according to a 2012 U.N. fact sheet.

Just under a third of its surface is desert, but a large proportion of the rest of its land is also under threat of desertification. Declining soil moisture and lack of vegetative cover have caused more frequent dust and sand storms, often originating in the western part of the country.

Years of conflict and violence have resulted in chemical pollution and unexploded ordnance, affecting the lives and safety of some 1.6 million Iraqis.

Access to safe water and sanitation is also a challenge, with 83 percent of waste water left untreated, contributing to pollution of Iraq’s waterways and the wider environment.

Drought and water shortages are also fuelling internal displacement and urbanisation. For example, the 2007-2009 drought hit agriculture hard, pushing some 20,000 people to move in search of better access to drinking water and livelihoods, according to the United Nations.

"The well-being, security and livelihoods of Iraqis are dependent on our success," Iraq's Minister of Environment Sargon Lazar Slewa said of the agreement with UNEP. The government is committed to moving ahead with plans to restore the environment under its National Development Plan, he added. 

UNEP has been working with the Iraqi administration since 2003 on projects including post-conflict environmental assessments, restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands and cleaning up highly contaminated sites. 

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