Climate heroes in Iraq
A life for the trees

It is getting hotter and hotter in Iraq. Fifty degrees or more is no longer a rarity. The state between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is now one of the hottest countries on earth. Muwafaq Mubareka from Baghdad is determined to fight global warming. Birgit Svensson paid the climate hero a visit

The photo he posts of himself is a dead giveaway: safari waistcoat and a cap, standing in front of a huge tree. A ranger, you would think. But Muwafaq Mubareka lives in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq with eight million people. He lives in a country where there are hardly any trees, where desert storms regularly kick up tons of sand and dust, and where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are so contaminated with pesticides that hardly anything grows.

Where droughts are rampant and are devastating more and more land. Where the soils in the south are becoming saline as tides drive the seawater from the Persian Gulf deep inland, because the Shatt al-Arab - the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris - carries too little water to hold it back. In a country known for its wars, for the terror of al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS). So there's a guy standing in front of a tree and smiling at the camera. How does that fit together?

Mubareka cannot say exactly how many trees he and his colleagues have already planted. But it could be close to a million. That is why the association of which he is a leading member is called the Millions of Trees Association, because it will take millions of trees to make the climate more bearable and save Iraq from total devastation.

It will take years to even slightly mitigate the environmental sins that have been committed here, let alone undo them. Iraq is one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, including temperature extremes and water scarcity. Bogged down by a volatile security situation, exhausting political manoeuvring and corruption, governments in Baghdad have so far failed to pay attention to the country's devastating environmental crisis.

Now, however, there is hope that things may be changing. On 22 September 2020, the parliament voted in favour of Iraq joining the Paris Climate Agreement. The legally binding agreement of 2015 aims to push global warming below two degrees Celsius. The 196 signatory states must do everything they can to reduce their greenhouse gases and avoid raising the temperature still further. Countries that lack the financial resources are to receive additional support.

Muwafaq Mubareka in seiner Baumschule im Süden von Bagdad. Hier probiert er aus, was im Irak wächst. Foto: Birgit Svensson
Muwafaq Mubareka is working to combat climate change in Iraq. Iraq, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change, is struggling with extreme temperatures and water shortages. Mubareka cannot say exactly how many trees he and his colleagues have already planted. But it could have been close to a million. That is why the association of which he is a leading member is called the Millions of Trees Association, because it is going to take millions of trees to make the climate more bearable and save Iraq from utter devastation

Authorities used to turn a deaf ear

Muwafaq Mubareka and his comrades-in-arms believe they are on the upswing. Until now, their appeals to the ministries and regional authorities had fallen on deaf ears. "No one wanted to listen to us," recalls Mubareka, who sees no shame in running the gauntlet for the trees.

They were always told there were other, more pressing problems. As yet, there is no plan on how to reach the climate goal in Iraq. But now everyone wants to plant trees. Along the corridors of power, trees are currently a hot topic.

"Keep calm" is what his German teacher in Goettingen taught him when Mubareka arrived in Germany equipped with an Iraqi scholarship to study forestry. He graduated in 1974 and intended to write his doctoral thesis at the Technical University of Braunschweig, specialising in wood research.

Then came the news from Baghdad that the scholarship had been cancelled, male members of his family had been killed and he too was suspected of acting against the regime. "Praying every day as a good Muslim and not being in the Baath Party was enough to get you labelled as an opponent of the regime."

After seizing power in 1963, Saddam Hussein used the Baath as an instrument to suppress all opposition.

Anyone who did not belong to the party was deemed an opponent. Iraqis studying abroad came under particular pressure to join the party. Muwafaq later learned that a fellow Iraqi student had denounced him to the intelligence service. "My family said don't come back, they will kill you."

A forestry graduate from Germany, he emigrated to Canada. Qualified people like him were wanted there. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein came to power and massacred hundreds of thousands of Shias and Kurds who were not loyal to him. Muwafaq is Shia, like the majority of Iraqis. Saddam Hussein was Sunni.

"But religion was not the main reason for the persecution," Mubareka comments about the former tyranny. It was unquestioning obedience, he says. The 77-year-old remained true to the motto of "keep calm" until the dictator's fall in 2003, despite being homesick for Baghdad.

Greening Basra

"We can do it": Mohamed Falih Abu Utaf is convinced. He is standing by a branch canal of the Shatt al-Arab in the middle of the southern metropolis of Basra and proudly points to the plantings that his initiative "For a green Basra" recently organised. Four hundred new trees along the canal, 16 different tree species. Most of them come from abroad, from the United Arab Emirates, from India, from Egypt. "Some have to be transplanted as soon as they come off the plane," says the agricultural engineer. He negotiated with the local authorities to help create the conditions for the saplings, drilling holes in the asphalt at ten-metre intervals and filling them with soil, laying irrigation hoses.

 

 

In winter, the new trees get water once a week, in summer two hours a day. To do the planting, Abu Utaf got volunteers from universities and other environmental groups. He showed them how to handle the saplings and also had flowers grouped around them. "It was all done in an orderly fashion," he points to a staff sheet. Everyone had to fill in their name, when they planted what, where, and how long it took. That way, he and his helpers could keep a statistical record of what had happened.

And they could determine what effect the trees had on the climate. "We already have temperatures below 50 degrees in the summer," he says with conviction, saying that this is already the first effect of their activities, which they have been engaged in for three years. When they started planting, it was still as hot as 53 degrees in summer, he says. The engineer is smart enough to know that this is far from enough and may not be sustainable. But his optimism is undiminished.

Abu Utaf's initiative is to Basra what Muwafaq Mubareka's association is nationwide. That said, the Millions of Trees Association was originally founded in Basra in 2012. A year later, it was registered as a non-governmental organisation in Baghdad and spread across the country at lightning speed. Abu Utaf has been a member since the beginning. Then, in 2017, he launched his own campaign for Basra.

"Many people who want a tree give me a call," the 61-year-old says. "We have greened schoolyards, the entrance to the courthouse," he points behind him. He would also like to green the burnt-out provincial council building in front of him, which housed the people's representatives and caught fire in September 2018, so that it no longer looks so dreary. At the time, thousands of young Iraqis took to the streets to vent their anger at corruption, poor living conditions, unemployment and hopelessness, setting fire to party offices, MPs' houses and the provincial council building, not to mention the government-owned TV station Iraqia.

Since then, the council has been dissolved, yet the governor remains and the living situation of the four million inhabitants has not really changed, apart from some roads that have been resurfaced and Abu Utaf's green trees.

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