New report highlights complex links between water insecurity and migration in Iraq

Water insecurity, like climate change, impacts the livelihood of many, particularly in drought prone countries like Iraq. However, we should avoid simplistic and mono-causal representations like “climate change refuges”, that hide the complexity of migration patterns and the political responsibilities behind them.

As young professionals, we often get bedazzled by booming media headlines that discuss climate change. Climate disasters-related mobility is gaining much of the spotlight lately with titles such as “Climate disasters ‘caused more internal displacement than war’ in 2020” or “The great climate migration has begun”. Yet, as water professionals, it’s our responsibility to publicly reflect on the fact that climate-related mobility is a highly debated topic in the research community, especially if when discussing mobility associated with long-term events such as recurrent droughts.

There is no doubt that water hazards can contribute to mobility, but not all water hazards are related to climate change. Additionally, it is important to differentiate between short-term events such as storms and floods, that displace people, and long-term events, such as droughts, that may influence migration patterns. When discussing long-term events there will always be nuances in each story.

The water insecurity-migration link in southern Iraq

A recent report by the Water, Peace and Security Partnership addresses this issue in the context of southern Iraq. The main findings show that there has been no direct correlation between water insecurity and migration in southern Iraq. Water insecurity has had an indirect effect by adversely affecting people’s livelihoods, which in turn has impacted migration patterns.

Migration is a very complex process. Specific reasons influencing the different aspects and choices about migration can be hard to pinpoint, even by the migrant himself. Migrants do not label themselves as a “labor migrants”, “water migrants” or “climate change refugees” before moving. They simply move to fulfill their aspiration and livelihoods needs. Not to mention, Iraq has a long history of social instability and war that further complicates the relation between water insecurity and migration.

Water insecurity, defined by the World Bank as inadequate quantity and quality of water for human well-being and socio-economic activities, has had an indirect impact on migration patterns. Due to droughts and increasing salinity intrusion in southern Iraq, water insecurity has been leading to the loss of agricultural output and livelihoods of farmers. The agricultural sector in Iraq employs 18% of the workforce. Farmers in southern Iraq have been forced to cope through various means, including migration or searching for alternative employment.

Key pathways from water insecurity to migration

The report highlights that water insecurity can impact livelihoods, health, energy, and food security, leading to migration, depending on people’s resilience to water insecurity and their options to cope and adapt. It compares and contrasts qualitative information from literature and expert interviews with quantitative hydrologic and demographic data on water security and migration. 

In Iraq, agricultural governance has been unstable for the past few decades, resulting in a system that relies on inefficient water usage, obsolete technology, and limited economic advantages. Consequently, the majority of farmers are unable to afford upgrading their farming and irrigation equipment to ones that are more water-efficient or capable of enduring or improving water quality. 

After 2003, in Iraq civil service positions such as administration and teaching were introduced in both rural and urban areas. However, numerous studies have criticized the Iraqi public sector reform during this period, stating that it was unproductive as it relied heavily on oil revenues and was overly staffed. This over reliance on oil resulted in livelihoods being entirely dependent on the fluctuations of the international oil market.

Public sector employment offered a temporary solution to many farmers in the south of Iraq until at least the international economic crisis in 2014-2015. The crisis caused a huge decline in oil prices, which in turn caused a shift in the population dynamics. The case in southern Iraq proves that shifting employment to the public sector is not a sustainable adaptation strategy to changing climate conditions. Iraq needs an integrated socioeconomic approach to strengthen resilience to water insecurity.

An important takeaway

The report clearly shows that it was not water insecurity that directly induced migration. Rather, it was the consequences of choices (or the lack thereof) in labour and agriculture governance that influenced migration patterns. As professionals in the field, we should always bear in mind the nuances and complexities of the nexus between climate/water, governance and livelihoods.

The analysis of the connections between the physical impacts of climate change such as droughts and the deterioration of personal livelihoods should always be mediated by the consideration of the political context – governance – and of social dynamics and practices for instance in terms of resilience strategies. Otherwise, uncritically presenting climate change as the main cause of conflicts or migration might contribute to obliterate or excuse their political roots like corruption, bribery, and sometimes even oppression.

More details on the pathways from water insecurity to migration in southern Iraq are found in the report: T.A.S, Mahmoud; I, Patrahau; A, Vignali, Understanding the Pathways from Water Insecurity to Urban Migration in Southern Iraq, March 2023, Water Peace and Security.

Cite this blog post
Toka Mahmoud (2023, June 9). New report highlights complex links between water insecurity and migration in Iraq. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Toka Mahmoud

Toka Mahmoud is a researcher from Egypt. She combines an interdisciplinary engineering and political sociology background on water and climate-related issues. She is interested in the nexus between climate/water, resilience, mobility and conflict. She is also passionate about humanitarian work and writes story blogs about people and water. Contact: LinkedIn: toka-mahmoud-716762178

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