For Iraqis, a sweltering ‘hell’ summer has begun

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Umm Mohammed, 74, waves a fan back and forth to cool off, but in the scorching heat of Basra, southern Iraq, there is nothing but sweltering air.

While Basra is used to scorching summers, this year it started earlier than expected, bringing hardship to residents of a city also plagued by chronic power shortages.

“By God, we are tired,” Umm Mohammed said weakly, adding that the heat had woken her up in the middle of the night.

Just days into summer, the temperature in Basra has already soared to around 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Umm Mohammed’s modest house has a flimsy tin roof that retains the sweltering heat.

Further north, in the capital Baghdad, temperatures have already topped 50 degrees Celsius — in the shade.

Battered by decades of conflict that have undermined its infrastructure, Iraq is grappling with droughts, repeated sandstorms, desertification and the drop in the level of certain rivers.

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Chronic blackouts are exacerbated in the summer, and only those who can afford private generators can run their refrigerators or air conditioners.

In Basra, high humidity aggravates the oppressive heat.

And with many Iraqis struggling to survive, spending around $105 a month on a private generator is not an option.

The authorities “must help the poor”, said Umm Mohammed, decrying their inability to provide adequate supplies.

Referring to how the government treats its citizens, she said, “Even God is not okay with that.”

– ‘It’s hell’ –

Iraq is the second largest oil producer in the OPEC cartel.

But the once-prosperous country has for years bought gas from neighboring Iran, which supplies about a third of its electricity needs.

US sanctions on Iranian oil and gas have complicated payments from Baghdad for imports, leaving Iraq in heavy arrears and prompting Tehran to periodically turn off the taps.

The result is longer blackouts for most of Iraq’s 41 million people, many of whom blame politicians and rampant corruption for their plight.

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Anger over power cuts helped fuel deadly protests from late 2019 to mid-2020, including many in southern Iraq.

Nataq al-Khafaji, who lives in Nasiriyah, just north of Basra, said coping in the heat without electricity was “very difficult for children and the elderly”.

“It’s hell,” he added.

During summer vacation, Khafaji’s three children have nowhere to go and little to do.

Stuck in their house plunged into darkness, they somehow try to escape the suffocating heat of the outside.

Khafaji bought a battery-operated fan, but expressed concern that it wouldn’t be enough for the worst months “when it’s near 50 degrees”.

– ‘National priority’ –

The United Nations ranks Iraq among the five countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Since mid-April, it has been rocked by 10 sandstorms, the result of intense drought, land degradation, high temperatures and low rainfall linked to climate change.

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President Barham Saleh has warned that tackling climate change “must become a national priority for Iraq as it is an existential threat to the future of our coming generations”.

Saleh said desertification is affecting 39% of Iraq, where water supplies are also drastically decreasing and crop yields are falling.

With heat waves and dust storms “expected to increase over the years”, health problems will also increase, said Seif al-Badr, spokesman for the health ministry.

“We plan to treat more people for various diseases linked to climate change,” he told UKTN.

But efforts to address these issues appear to have been abandoned, as Iraq grapples with a political stalemate that left it without a new government after elections last October.

The World Bank has warned that unless solutions are found, Iraq could lose 20% of its water resources by 2050 due to climate change.

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