Afforestation campaigns flourish in Iraq as citizen action leads the fight against desertification
Over recent months, Iraqis have been engaging in neighbourhood tree-planting campaigns, both as individuals and as group efforts. They believe these actions are part of the necessary response to combat the damage climate change is wreaking in Iraq, the devastating effects of which are already being felt deeply.
They hope their initiatives will encourage government action and spark official large-scale afforestation campaigns, which they in turn hope will help combat the growing threats posed by ever more frequent dust storms and rising temperatures.
Desertification crisis grows
Desertification is considered a major cause for both the rising temperature and the increasingly severe dust storms which have been battering Iraq for the last two decades.
Government statistics show that 23,432,829 hectares (53.49 percent of Iraq's total surface area) is at risk of desertification. Officials suggest that a colossal afforestation strategy – involving the planting of 11,700,000,000 trees – is needed to combat the problem.
"They hope their initiatives will encourage government action and spark official large-scale afforestation campaigns, which they in turn hope will help combat the growing threats posed by ever more frequent dust storms and rising temperatures"
Currently, 15 percent of Iraq's total area is categorised as being in a state of desertification. Ministry of Environment officials estimate that 300,000,000 trees should be planted as the first phase of a larger afforestation drive, while acknowledging the huge obstacle to such a scheme posed by water scarcity.
In March 2022, Iraqi authorities launched an initiative to plant a million fruit trees – including date, citrus and others – in Iraq's cities.
Hamid al-Nayef, spokesman at the Ministry of Agriculture, said in a press statement that the ministry was supporting greenbelt creation around Baghdad and other governorates by providing saplings of perennial trees for free. He said a joint campaign had been launched by the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers with civil society institutions to plant green zones in university campuses and on main roads.
However, Walid al-Jamili, an agricultural engineer and environmental activist, is unconvinced by government action so far. In conversation with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic language sister publication, he said: "Activists, citizens and environmental experts have implored the authorities repeatedly to play the role they should be in rescuing the environment, but no action is taken."
He stressed that environmentalists, especially those with relevant skills and an interest in agriculture – like engineers and farmers – were the ones playing an active role in revitalising green spaces.
"We have sent multiple reports to local authorities and ministries to demand a commitment to afforestation schemes and that funds be set aside for this. However, all we get are promises that aren't implemented, and it they are, they are weak and unsustainable efforts. Any serious agricultural campaign should be preceded with well-defined, long-term plans to allow the afforestation of specific areas, as well as care being taken regarding details around planting and tree growth. Work teams should be allocated to tend to the plants and make sure they are able to grow properly."
"Activists, citizens and environmental experts have implored the authorities repeatedly to play the role they should be in rescuing the environment, but no action is taken"
Experts working with volunteers
Al-Jamili got together with a group of engineers, farm owners and plant nursery owners. They encouraged residents in local neighbourhoods to plant trees in their gardens, at the edges of pavements and in the spaces in the middle of the roads. Additionally, they were encouraged to grow seasonable plants outside shops, houses and on balconies, and wherever else they could. He stresses that "the response from citizens has been overwhelming, even though these campaigns are costing them money – they are paying for the trees and seeds."
Some plant nursery owners are supporting these campaigns by selling seedlings at reduced prices. Mehdi Hassan, who manages a plant nursery in Baghdad says: "The nursery owner told me to go to places I had seen people planting tree saplings, and advise them on how to do it, the best places to put them, and how to tend to them. We also cut the prices of the saplings we sell by 50 percent or more."
Environmental specialists in Iraq say the current lack of cultivated areas results from successive droughts. This is a result of the decline in seasonal rains, as well as the dwindling snowfall in the north of the country. Both factors have led to a drop in water reserves. Additionally, Turkey has restricted the water flowing into Iraq via the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and Iran has also diverted water from rivers which used to enter Iraq.
In more recent weeks, Iraq has been buffeted by incessant dust storms that have covered the country in an ominous orange haze. But this is just the start of the climate crisis facing the country 👇 https://t.co/TetOL2BrZV— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) May 27, 2022
Government action needed
A Ministry of Agriculture official (who preferred to remain anonymous) said to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed: "The issue [of desertification] needs to be worked on from two sides. Firstly, sufficient funding needs to be allocated so that vegetation cover in the country can be increased, and secondly efforts need to be made to reach an agreement with Iran on re-opening the blocked water flow back into Iraqi rivers." He warned that without these solutions, "desertification will spread."
Another issue raised in local reports are official military campaigns which have seen huge areas of plant coverage razed. Security forces have systematically destroyed thousands of hectares of orchards and farmland in multiple regions while chasing down armed insurgents, turning these areas into wasteland.
Such assaults on the environment have played a role in the rising temperatures and incidence of dust storms, which caused one death and thousands of hospitalisations due to suffocation in May this year, according to official health sources.
"Security forces have systematically destroyed thousands of hectares of orchards and farmland in multiple regions while chasing down armed insurgents, turning these areas into wasteland"
Dust storms battering economy
The extreme weather is also causing major economic hardship. Saif Kamel is the owner of six mini buses which provide public transportation for several bus routes in Baghdad. He explained that the dust storms brought everything to a halt – including public transport. There was one month, he says, where the buses couldn't run for eight days. Every bus he owns has two drivers, which means that 12 families lost their income, he says.
The economic strain ordinary Iraqis are suffering is the main impetus for the scattered but growing local efforts to forge solutions. Zahra Fadel, a primary school teacher, says: "My husband owns a café, and lost over 50 percent of his income during the dust storms, and had to close the café. Other family members were also losing money […]. Me and the other teachers decided to launch a campaign to educate our pupils on the importance of agriculture, and we encouraged them to get their relatives to join volunteer planting initiatives.
"We planted seedlings inside the schools, and handed out print-outs for families urging them to grow plants in their gardens and empty spaces near their homes as much as they could. I think the campaign was successful."
Regreening urban spaces
Iraq used to have many large green spaces and parks in and around its cities. However, severe economic hardship in recent decades has led people to seek alternative means of income, and one way Iraqis have done this was by building small houses on top of their garden space which could be sold or rented out.
Nashwa Al Qaraghuli says: "My home was spacious, with a 175 metre front garden, and another small garden at the back. We planted all kinds of trees, plants and flowers, and my neighbours who also had big gardens did the same. This helped lower the intensity of the heat in the summer, and moistened the air, and protected the environment by repelling wind and dust."
"That was over ten years ago. Now all of us have transformed our gardens into houses because we need the money … and the government has also made no plans to provide new housing [...]. But this has had negative consequences like the dust storms and rise in temperature, as the cultivated spaces used to provide air moisture."
Thousands hospitalised as dust storms show Iraq’s growing desertification problem https://t.co/x5zxFzcbeq— The Independent (@Independent) May 24, 2022
Al Qaraghuli (62) says that due to these effects, she got her children to plant trees on the pavement, and her neighbour did the same: "We also planted trees on the rooftops of our homes to make them look nice. I have also seen young people planting trees on the sides of the main roads. These are humanitarian and moral actions for our country, and I hope these initiatives will spur government agencies to enact major afforestation campaigns."
This is an edited translation of two articles from our Arabic edition.
The first was published on 17/06/22 and you can read it here.
The second was published on 21/06/22 and you can read it here.
Translated by Rose Chacko
These articles were taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirror the sources' original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.
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