In Baghdad, the arguments usually start off small, says Marama Habib, a long-time resident of the Iraqi capital.
“In the village, like the one I come from, people do not accept strangers sitting outside their property or on their walls,” explains the journalist, who lives in Baghdad’s affluent Karada neighborhood but is originally from a small town outside of Karbala; she did not want to give her real name for fear of upsetting her family back home or her neighbors.
“But in the city, everybody does it. It’s OK just to sit on the street outside somebody’s house. It’s normal. But the farmers from the country don’t understand this and they come out and start arguing. I’ve seen people get into fights,” she told DW.
Habib offers a further example of the growing rural-urban culture clash in Iraq. Rural families are not accustomed to seeing women wearing Western-style clothes, she says. Habib is religious herself and wears a headscarf but the rest of her wardrobe involves modest garments like long-sleeved shirts and jeans, a common look in Baghdad.
“In the villages, women are more covered,” she explains, referring to long tunics and robes that show even less of the female figure. “So the farmers come to Baghdad and they think the women wearing Western clothes are prostitutes,” Habib says, laughing a little. “That can also cause problems. I mean, I’m from the countryside originally so I understand where they’re coming from. I try to talk to them. But it does cause problems.”
A growing problem
These are the kinds of societal problems that Iraq is likely to see more of.
The United Nations says Iraq is one of the five countries in the world worst affected by climate change. Around 92% of Iraqi land is threatened by desertification and temperatures here are increasing seven times faster than the global average. This makes agriculture difficult, if not impossible, and causes farming families to migrate to Iraq’s cities in search of work and opportunity.
“Rural towns in Iraq already face a number of issues,” says James Munn, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq office. Due to long periods of conflict in Iraq, rural areas are already resource starved, he told DW. “So there are fewer jobs, not much working infrastructure, scarcity of water, few schools, few hospitals. That’s the backdrop to what’s happening now. And then climate change is supercharging all those vulnerabilities further, forcing even more people to leave.”
A spokesperson from the UN’s International Organization for Migration, or IOM, in Iraq, told DW that between June 2018 and June 2023, it had identified at least 83,000 people displaced “due to climate change and environmental degradation across central and southern Iraq.”
“These movements are largely rural to urban, and over short distances,” IOM said. And, the spokesperson confirmed, “host communities in urban areas have cited tensions.”
Many of the climate-displaced end up living in shanty towns or informal settlements in and around larger cities.
“New arrivals tend to fall at the margins of a system that local populations are already accustomed to,” the IOM spokesperson said. “Then a majority of the displaced population is also employed in low wage jobs in the informal sector — things like daily labor, informal commerce, small businesses or in workshops — while local residents mostly have government jobs.”
The newcomers compete with long-term residents for already-stretched infrastructure and may find it difficult to access things like transport, healthcare or education. Even sewage systems and clean drinking water can be hard to come by. Social support networks may be limited and there’s more chance of mental illness and substance abuse.
Rural-urban political divide
Recent reports from out of the country, both by monitoring organizations and media, suggest that rural-urban antipathy is growing. City residents suspect the newcomers of crime, violence and primitive politics and say they’re bringing tribal conflicts into the city with them. Local politicians have tended to scapegoat people from rural areas too.
This is not just true for Iraq: Sociologists have long remarked on the political differences between city dwellers, who may be more liberal and tolerant of cultural diversity, and rural populations, who are seen as “country bumpkins” and more conservative or religious.
This is also why what begins as a neighborhood scrap about garden walls or women’s clothing can eventually evolve to have national ramifications.
Baghdad’s sprawling suburb, Sadr City, is a good example of this. It was built in the 1950s to accommodate rural Iraqis who fled drought, poverty and dispossession.
Over time, the “rural migrants and their descendants transformed peripheral settlements into core sites of resistance, providing popular bases of support to communists, nationalists and, later, Shiite Islamists,” Huma Gupta, a professor of architecture wrote in a 2021 briefing for the US-based Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Rural migration into Baghdad “fundamentally transformed the political trajectory of Iraq,” Gupta argued.
Topic doesn’t get enough attention
So what, if anything, can be done to maintain Iraqi social cohesion in the face of growing climate-induced displacement?
Experts have offered potential solutions. “Given the integration concerns, future programming could focus on supporting social cohesion efforts in areas where a high number of climate migrants are recorded,” IOM in Iraq suggests. “Further research should be conducted on perceptions that unresolved rural tribal grievances have the potential to increase security incidents. Finally, the rights of migrants and displaced persons moving across governorates should always be supported.”
Other expert advice suggests that local authorities could run awareness campaigns, build better accommodation for newcomers — Iraq is already suffering from a housing shortage and reportedly needs an extra 2.5 million housing units — or help with employment and access to state services.
But because of issues like political instability and corruption, the Iraqi government has not been able to respond adequately to climate change in general, let alone to more specific issues like this.
“Although some of its agencies talk about it, the Iraqi government has no plan for these people,” Iraqi environmental activist Ahmed Saleh Neema, who’s based in southern Iraq, told DW. “In fact, the government is still denying some of the statistics [about internal displacement]. So there’s no plan in that regard. As for international agencies, organizations like the UN are still in the process of research and working out how to provide assistance,” he suggested.
While IOM is aware of the issues, its own long list of activities indicates that most efforts are currently concentrated on supporting rural communities struggling with climate change.
The topic has also been understudied, experts suggest. Researchers have either focused on rural areas in countries like Iraq, or on the violence that climate change begets with, for instance, communities fighting over water supplies and arable land, or when young farmers are persuaded to join extremist militias.
And while the international definition of what an “environmental refugee” is remains unclear, there’s even less certainty about the legal position of a local person internally displaced by climate change.
“The government’s de-facto position seems to be that instead of acknowledging climate related displacement it is easier to claim they are economic migrants,” the NRC’s Munn notes. “But what is happening is that large parts of the country are becoming uninhabitable during most of the summer months, which also happens to be within the farmers’ crop cycle. But those who are displaced are left to fend for themselves.”
“We recognize it as a problem and we’re tracking it to the best of our ability,” he concludes. “But, in general, there isn’t really any durable support system for them, or even much recognition that this is a problem.”
With contributions from Abbas al-Khashali in Bonn.
Edited by: Anne Thomas