[UNAMI] - International Mother Earth Day is when we celebrate Nature’s gifts and we promote and show awareness of the call to ensure the environmental security of our planet. It has increasing significance in Iraq, a country emerging from years of armed conflict which faces a host of environmental problems from an on-going water crisis, that threatens both stability and development, to pollution, all made worse by limited awareness of what the people can contribute to the well-being of our environment.
Climate change is one of the largest threats to sustainable development globally, and its impact touches us all. Iraq is not among the major contributors to climate change, but Iraq is among the countries affected, as seen in the extreme weather of the last few years – scorching temperatures, desertification and water shortages, and the recent heavy rainfall and floods.
Iraq sits in what was once known as Mesopotamia, the land between the Rivers Euphrates and the Tigris. Historically, its people have been able to exercise their right to water. In fact, an abundance of water was a key factor in the development of Iraq’s rich civilizations.
However, the water crisis is real. An exceptional season of heavy rainfall has filled dams and rivers, and flooded lands, but still, Iraq faces a water crisis in terms of both supply and quality. As we approach the hot summer season the crisis can only be expected to grow.
Population growth, regional disagreements over trans-boundary water supply, poor infrastructure, outdated practices of waste and water management, increased salinization and climate change all contribute to Iraq’s contemporary water problems. The consequences are felt at all levels, humanitarian, economic, security, and social.
No effort should be spared to manage this crisis and a sense of urgency is desperately needed. Equally important is to inform the Iraqi people that sustainable solutions to counter the damage done to the environment will take time and the road ahead is long and far from easy. Decades of stagnation, lack of investment and mismanagement cannot be solved overnight.
It is not enough to just rely on the power of Nature to repair the damage. We must act now. We are the guardians of our planet. Action starts at home and in the workplace through water resource and waste management, conservation measures and a green plan that puts awareness at the forefront.
The Government of Iraq has made improving water management a priority. For this effort to be effective, sufficient allocation of resources and capacity building is required at all levels. It cannot succeed without the solid commitment of the political parties - across party lines – to deal with an issue of high national importance. Water resources are finite and increasingly scarce. There needs to be a change in our approach to this precious resource. With rights come responsibilities. Every drop of water needs judicious use at all levels. Water wastage should be socially unacceptable, and conservation promoted.
In the same vein, waste management requires awareness and action. Promoting behavioural change, rehabilitating and modernising agricultural infrastructure as well as ensuring pollutant-free, environment-friendly industry are some of the measures to stop the waste and damage. Clearly a lot more needs to be done in all sectors. But it is up to us to act, even with small but effective steps that contribute to the well-being of our environment.
Recycle and sort waste when you can. Conserve water and energy when you are able. Think before using plastic – bags, cups, trays. Think about how you dispose of batteries. Plant a tree and watch it grow. Make it a habit to switch off the lights and appliances when you don’t need them. Set your air conditioning thermostat higher in summer, lower in winter. Drive less, car pool, cycle, or walk when possible. Report leaks and spills no matter how small. Just be on your own guard. Educate your family and friends about the benefits of protecting the environment. Although this country has vast natural energy resources, renewable energy provides a clean and efficient alternative.
The United Nations in Iraq is doing its part. The UN family in Iraq provides technical support to the government on efficient water resources management. In addition, since 2017, the United Nations has provided emergency supplies of water to over two million displaced persons in Iraq, and to five million individuals in communities affected by violence and conflict. The UN also supports local governments in upgrading their water systems and sewage treatment plants.
At UN Iraq headquarters in Baghdad, we are using solar power and other energy efficient measures to achieve a 50 percent reduction of the conventional energy we use by the end of 2020. All new construction is energy efficient, using 50 percent less energy than conventional buildings, existing buildings are retrofitted to consume 30 percent less energy than conventional buildings. We use reusable bags and paper bags instead of plastic and aim for 25 percent greening of the landscape. We use recycled water for irrigation, energy efficient lighting and air conditioning, and, equally important, we have year-round awareness campaigns on energy efficiency.
The argument by some that the measures we can take individually and collectively will not make a difference is not valid. The enormity of the problem demands that each one of us do his/her part. So, start today, at this very moment, to help save Mother Earth and make it a better place for your families and future generations.
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert is the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq.