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Climate change and post-conflict reconstruction in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq

Photo: Blenckner/SIPRI
Photo: Blenckner/SIPRI

The Islamic State (IS) group’s occupation of northern Iraq between 2014 and 2017 caused immense destruction, with tens of thousands of civilians killed and millions displaced. In Nineveh, IS perpetrated a genocidal campaign against several ethnic and religious minorities and systematically destroyed heritage sites, infrastructure and livelihoods. Recovery and reconstruction have begun, but there is still a long way to go. It is important, however, to go beyond replacing what was destroyed, to build back ‘better’ and more resilient. This means taking into account emerging challenges such as the effects of climate change.

A recent SIPRI report, informed by field research with communities in the Nineveh Plains region, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the linkages between climate change and post-conflict reconstruction. It stresses the need for a holistic approach to reconstruction that addresses the devastating impact of IS occupation while at the same time building resilience to climate-related risks.

How climate change impacts agriculture and food security

Climate change is already profoundly affecting lives and livelihoods in the Nineveh Plains. Extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent and more intense. At the same time, slow-onset climatic changes are also taking place. The region has suffered severe drought conditions since early 2021, and reduced rainfall due to climate change is also depleting water resources.

Impacts like these make the already complex processes of post-conflict reconstruction even more challenging. This is particularly true of the agricultural sector, which has long been the mainstay of Nineveh’s economy and of Iraq’s food security. The crop and livestock farmers of the Nineveh Plains have faced an uphill struggle to re-establish their activities and livelihoods due to a range of interacting factors. After years of reduced production and economic turmoil linked to the IS occupation, and with very little support from the government, many of the region’s farmers cannot afford to invest in restoring damaged agricultural machinery and irrigation systems. This leaves their crops and livestock even more vulnerable to extreme weather and adds to the uncertainty and difficulties that farmers face in an already troubled political and security situation.

Heat stress and unreliable rainfall are also driving linked crises of food security and displacement throughout Iraq. In northern Iraq, crop failures due to drought have hit local food availability and driven up food prices. As a result, more and more rural families in the Nineveh Plains are struggling to earn a living. Many have abandoned farming and moved to urban centres in search of work in other sectors.

Concerns about the future and differentiated needs

Climate change impacts are also affecting people’s concerns and anxieties about the future, and this psychological dimension must not be underestimated. SIPRI’s research in the Nineveh Plains shows that access to a secure water source is an important factor influencing confidence in the future for people in the region. For example, access to a secure water source was the most important factor influencing confidence in the future for a majority of Kaka’i respondents. This is most likely connected to the Kaka’is’ high dependence on agriculture and livestock farming. A secure water source was also the third most important factor influencing Turkmen’s feelings of confidence about the future, after security and employment.

These variations indicate that different groups have different needs. However, there was also variation between localities. In Nimrud, in the district of Al-Hamdaniya (see map), 45 per cent of respondents considered reliable and sustainable access to water as a key factor in feeling secure about the future, compared with only 10 per cent in Alqosh and 6 per cent in Tal Kayf Markaz, in Tal Kayf district.

The report’s findings highlight the differentiated ways that climate change can impact on various groups in conflict-affected societies. How people experience climate change, and the needs and concerns it generates, are shaped by the intersection of a wide variety of factors, such as geography, occupation, socio-economic status, gender, age and ethnicity. This underscores the importance of ensuring that reconstruction projects are sensitive to this variety of experiences, and tailor their plans and initiatives accordingly.

Map of Nineveh province and the Nineveh Plains
Map of Nineveh province and the Nineveh Plains

The role of governance

While phenomena such as water shortages in the Nineveh Plains—and in Iraq more generally—are connected to the global climate crisis, they are exacerbated by poor governance at both the national and the regional levels. Although irrigation could help to mitigate and alleviate some of the effects of drought and unreliable rainfall, water resource-management policies in Iraq are often inadequate and short-sighted. Even before the destruction caused by IS, water infrastructure had been deteriorating over time due to a lack of investment in maintenance.

At the regional level, the limited cooperation with Iraq’s neighbours over transboundary water resources adds to the country’s vulnerability to climate change and drought. For example, damming of the Tigris upstream in Turkey has been blamed for reducing the water flows reaching Iraq. To make Iraq more resilient to future climate change impacts, reconstruction must include overhauling and modernizing water infrastructure, developing better irrigation techniques, and improving the overall management of water resources.

Climate change and post-conflict reconstruction

The findings of SIPRI’s research show that addressing climate-related challenges should be an integral part of post-conflict reconstruction processes, not a separate activity. The agricultural sector in Nineveh provides some of the clearest and the most concrete illustrations of this need, but it is far from the only aspect of life in the region that is affected by climate-related risks. Climate change also has indirect impacts on cultural heritage and social cohesion, which can affect the success of reconstruction. Climate-related risks and challenges can breed insecurity and impede reconciliation and trust building; the pathways through which they can affect social dynamics and intercommunity relations thus also need to be thoroughly assessed.

Recognizing the nexus between environmental security and peace is essential for reconstruction and reconciliation to succeed. It is therefore imperative to place climate responses at the heart of a holistic approach to post-conflict reconstruction.


This work is conducted in collaboration with the University of Duhok as part of the larger project on ‘Support to Traditional Cultural Practices in Northern Iraq’ led by the LASER PULSE consortium. The wider project is grounded in the practice of Embedded Research Translation.

This commentary was made possible by support provided by the Innovation, Technology and Research Hub of the US Agency for International Development through the LASER PULSE programme, under the terms of Cooperative Agreement No. 7200AA18CA00009. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Agency for International Development.


Amal Bourhrous is a Researcher in the SIPRI Middle East and North Africa Programme.