Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Ms. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert Iraq Climate Conference
Basra - 12 March 2023
Distinguished guests, good morning.
I’m very happy to be here and, if you allow me, I would like to open my remarks by paying tribute to Mr. Jassim al-Asadi. His lifelong commitment to environmental conservation is not only appreciated, but also essential.
We need people like Mr. Jassim. They open our eyes. They wake us up. They are the critical drivers for change, adaptation and progress.
Ladies and gentlemen, I decided not to bother you with numbers, rankings or percentages. There are other experts far better placed to do so, and you will surely hear from them during this conference. Instead, I wish to convey a sense of urgency.
The fact is that environmental challenges present a looming threat. They are far too often overlooked - preoccupied as we are with managing our daily lives. Ultimately, however, climate change is one of the greatest global challenges we collectively face. Hence, we cannot afford to get distracted. We need to focus; we need to keep our eye on the ball.
Nearly a year ago, I visited the Mesopotamian Marshes. I was received by Mr. Jassim. He shared his concerns and explained what is at stake.
Like many of you, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand a dramatic, beautiful landscape. A landscape whose biodiversity is equalled only by its cultural significance.
But sadly, as explained by others, water scarcity in this region is not just a threat on the horizon. It is real. It is here, now.
This is, by the way, also the case for other parts of the country. True, southern Iraq remains the most affected region - but drought has also severely damaged agricultural activities in the north, Iraq’s food basket.
Ladies and gentlemen, the salinization of water and soils, desertification and the disappearance of arable land are nothing less than existential environmental concerns. As I said, here in Iraq, the water crisis is real.
When I raised the issue in a public briefing a year ago, a “climate change non-believer” questioned me. I was expected to focus on peace and security, so he said. As if there is no connection…
So, let me emphasize here: climate change and water scarcity are threat multipliers. If left unaddressed, they will come with heightened risks of poverty, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, displacement, forced migration, instability and conflict. And, to be clear: it is already happening. Iraq is acutely vulnerable.
We do not have to go far. I have discussed this with the Governor, many times; look around in Basra. Families happily farming their lands for generations now increasingly move to the city. Not because they prefer it, but simply because they are forced to. They are losing their livelihoods; they are running out of options to provide for income. In turn, the city is confronted with an influx of people for which it is not equipped, leading to slums with poor living conditions.
Of course – it is also important to mention here that many, but not all, of Iraq’s environmental challenges can be attributed to climate change.
For instance, potable water, and irrigation infrastructure and maintenance are significantly lagging behind. Regrettably, Iraq’s water resources have been ineffectively managed for too long.
Also of relevance here, Iraq’s water flows are actively being reduced by neighbouring countries. Population growth is, of course, another factor.
But again, Iraq’s water crisis is real. And, desertification remains a central concern. Last year’s wave of intense dust- and sandstorms is just another case in point.
The country got battered by storms that obscured the sky, sent people running for shelter, and even resulted in sickness and death. And, in the absence of concerted action and political resolve, the risks thereof will only be further exacerbated.
Ladies and gentlemen, this conference provides an important platform. A platform for building partnerships. A platform for cooperation, coordination and collaboration.
And I would like to thank His Excellency, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, for bringing us all here in this room.
Mr. Prime Minister, I know that this is a priority for you and rightly so. And I can only emphasize that shared ownership of this crucial file - across the political spectrum - will prove essential.
And while we must speak out about the need for collective action, about the need to mitigate and adapt, it is - of course - equally important to also highlight the associated opportunities and possibilities.
Take for example – the Prime Minister mentioned it himself - the gas flaring. Along with methane leaks, flaring and venting of natural gas make up a significant part of Iraq’s emissions. So, yes, as made (yet again) crystal clear by the Prime Minister a few weeks ago: these practices need to end.
That said, this end can spawn a new beginning. If Iraq was to capture the gas it currently flares, it would provide electricity for the entire south. Need I say more?
Another example is the transition to clean energy. This is not, simply, a move away from oil and gas – rather it is a move towards a new, green economy.
One that comes with jobs, with new infrastructure. One that feeds into the need for Iraq to build a diversified economy. I mean, I think we can all agree that an overreliance on oil is not a solid strategy – for many reasons.
What I am essentially saying is: let’s not just talk in terms of risks. A crescendo of doom has the tendency to paralyze things.
So, let’s also explore the many possibilities that are out there. Even the non-believers will have to admit that efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change also produce opportunities, such as resource efficiency and cost savings, as well as the development of new products and services.
Ladies and gentlemen, some call “climate change” the great equalizer.
And, true, it is coming for all of us – no matter our passport or pay grade. But the fact is, we are not all equally vulnerable.
Rural communities. Poor or marginalized groups. Minorities. People with disabilities. Women and girls. These are the people who stand to suffer most. Particularly when vulnerabilities intersect.
For example, rural women, who bear the brunt of a changing climate, are often the ones with the least access to resources and services, decision-making capacity or mobility needed to respond.
Involving these groups in adaptation and mitigation decision-making processes is not an act of charity. Again, it is an opportunity – one that can enrich our responses and bring new ideas to the table.
Lastly, ladies and gentlemen, let me emphasize: the environmental challenges facing Iraq are not all homegrown. I just referred to neighbours that are actively reducing the inflow in Iraq’s rivers. What does that mean? It means Iraq cannot solve these challenges alone. No country can.
All stakeholders will have to play their part. From the Government, neighbouring countries, private companies, international organizations and financial institutions to think tanks, start-ups, local advocacy groups and NGOs. Each and every one of us must play a role in the mammoth tasks ahead.
And as climate-related challenges grow in complexity – spilling across borders, deepening fractures among societies, multiplying existing threats – I can only underline the need for stepped up regional cooperation. It will be ever more critical, as explained by the Prime Minister.
And it goes without saying: at all times, the UN stands ready to support regional water diplomacy, provide technical assistance on water negotiations or act as a convening partner for effective dialogue.
The harsh reality is that many of today’s challenges do not recognize borders. And, facing these challenges requires close cooperation. We need each other to be at our best. It is as simple as that.
Within this context, let me also welcome Iraq’s participation in the upcoming UN 2023 Water Conference in New York later this month. And yes, certainly, joining the Water Convention in advance would send a strong message about Iraq’s seriousness to engage at the regional level using normative frameworks.
In closing, ladies and gentlemen, it is our sincere hope that, through this conference - here in Basra - Iraq will embark on an inclusive planning process.
One with strong institutional coordination and sufficient budget allocation. One which the United Nations and many other partners can support in following up.
A process that will enable Iraq to effectively deal with the many environmental challenges and associated risks ahead.
I wish you all a fruitful conference.