A Vicious Circle: State-building, Climate Change Vulnerability and the Monopoly of Violence in Basra, Iraq

May 26, 2023

By Jane Wilkinson


This paper explores the climate change, conflict, and state-building nexus, challenging the prevailing one-dimensional view of this relationship. While global actors like the UN Security Council and the European Union recognize climate change as a "threat multiplier" that intensifies conflict risks, this paper argues that state-building processes can also significantly influence the impact of climate change. By examining the story of Basra, Iraq, this case study highlights how Iraq's vulnerability to climate change is not solely a consequence of environmental factors but also stems from the enduring legacy of decades of war. This vulnerability, coupled with the state's limited monopoly of violence, creates a feedback loop wherein non-state actors strengthen their control over territory and resources as the state’s climate change vulnerability increases. The findings of this analysis have implications for climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, underscoring the need to address both conflict dynamics and state-building processes to effectively tackle climate change. 


Along the canals of Basra, children play in the debris of rusty shipwrecks, in water that is poisoned with bacteria, chemicals and salt. In 2020, there were more than 100,000 cases of water-borne illness, which over-crowded hospitals and resulted in hours-long waits for treatment. As one school boy, Khalid, describes: “we all know someone who is sick because of the water, but what can we do? There is no clean water in the city, we have no options” (The Guardian 2020). It is easy to imagine Basra as one of the places that former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin had in mind in 1995 when he predicted that “the wars of the next century will be about water”(Risi 2019). 

The dual intensification of water scarcity and civil unrest in southern Iraq evokes a number of concerns about the region’s future. In 2018, outbreaks of water-borne illness resulted in violent protests, which resulted in the deaths of 15 civilians and injury of 190 more (Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative 2018). In 2022, Iraq entered its second year of drought, resulting in high reports of failed crops and a loss of drinking water as a result of increasing seawater intrusion (“A Dry Horizon: Iraq’s Interlinked Drought and Climate Crises” 2022). The paucity of usable water is just one of the reasons that the United Nations Environment Program has labeled Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change (“Global Environment Outlook 6” 2019). As one study from the University of Basra indicates the mean temperatures are increasing while the mean precipitation continues to decrease, it is reasonable to question how these climatic trends could result in further socioeconomic turmoil and civil unrest (Al-Muhyi 2022, 215). 

In 2015, a landmark study uncovered that every standard deviation increase in global temperatures results in an 11.3 percent increase in intergroup conflict (Burke, Hsiang, and Miguel 2015, 577). This study re-launched a wave of research into the intersection of climate change and conflict. The interest is logical – all of the ten least peaceful countries on the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP) Global Peace Index (“Global Peace Index” 2022, 10) are also ranked as being the most at-risk of climate change on IEP’s Ecological Threat Report (“Ecological Threat Report” 2022, 20) [1]. Key global actors such as the UN Security Council and the European Union subsequently recognize climate change as a “threat multiplier” (United Nations n.d.; The European Union External Action Service 2022) that could increase conflict risk depending on a state’s adaptive capacity. Leading scholars on climate change and conflict tend to view the relationship as indirect, with a state’s capability having a particular influence on how climate change influences conflict (Mach et al. 2019, 194-195). This angle of analysis views this relationship as one sided – that climate change directly interacts with state institutions and then indirectly influences “instability.” This is seen through two lenses: first, the limited capability of a state with weak institutions to undertake effective climate change adaptation, and second the inability to deliver key services can negatively impact the government’s perceived legitimacy amongst citizens.  This implies that climate change reduces a state’s monopoly on violence and ability to not only mitigate resource scarcity but also to prevent subnational conflict and violence over these scarce resources.

the process of state-building can both cause environmental degradation which increases sensitivity to climate change and impact a state’s ability to effectively implement adaptive strategies

Buhaug and von Uexkull argue that many of the conditions that impact climate vulnerability also impact conflict risk – and that this produces a “vicious circle” of vulnerability and violence (Buhaug and Von Uexkull 2021, 545). However, Buhaug and Uexkull do not explore how state-building itself – particularly the consolidation of a monopoly of violence – impacts climate vulnerability.  In this paper, I will consider an additional perspective – that the process of state-building can both cause environmental degradation which increases sensitivity to climate change and impact a state’s ability to effectively implement adaptive strategies. The implication here is that state-building may have a significant impact on the effects of climate change, rather than climate change alone having an impact on state-building. 

After providing a theoretical overview of this perspective, I will make this case by examining how Basra, Iraq’s significant vulnerability to climate change and poor adaptive capacity are the legacies of decades of the Iraqi pursuit of state sovereignty. I will do this by first discussing the joint history of Iraq’s modern state-building process and environmental degradation in Basra, demonstrating that the governorate’s sensitivity to climate change is a legacy of war. Secondly, I will analyze how the lack of a monopoly of violence creates a feedback loop through which non-state actors are strengthened as climate change vulnerability increases. I will then provide some conclusions on the implication of this perspective for global climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Climate Change and State-building

Experts agree that climate change has some impact on conflict, but the mechanisms of this relationship lack consensus. A study conducted by Mach et al. (2019) surveyed 11 of the most cited climate-security experts and showed that there was agreement that climate change affects conflict but that the exact process through which this occurs remains uncertain (Mach et al. 2019, 194-195). A number of frameworks have emerged in an attempt to further define this relationship. For example, Mobjörk and van Baalen defined a set of four “pathways” through which climate change influences conflict following a comprehensive review of the literature on climate change and conflict in East Africa (van Baalen and Mobjörk 2018). The pathways do not prescribe a direct causal link, but instead examine how climate change can result in “chain” of interactions that influence conflict dynamics. For example, climate change can result in resource scarcity which negatively influences livelihoods and requires affected households to adapt— which can entail engaging in livestock raiding or joining armed groups to replace lost income. Other proposed frameworks to theorize climate change and conflict include the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways framework proposed by Hegre et al. (2016). The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways are commonly used in general climate change research to model and predict how climate change will impact humanity at large. Hegre et al. propose applying this to explore climate change’s influence on conflict specifically (Hegre et al. 2016, 1). Generally speaking, these approaches are one-dimensional—  exploring how variability in climate patterns can cause socio-economic shocks that can subsequently increase the risk of conflict by increasing the attractiveness of joining armed groups or reducing the efficacy of long-standing intergroup agreements as resources enter into surplus or scarcity. 

Recognizing the one-dimensionality of past frameworks, in 2021 Buhaug and von Uexkull proposed an alternative theory through which climate change increases the risk of armed conflict and armed conflict subsequently increases vulnerability to climate change. This framework – similar to those Hegre et. al and Mobjörk and van Baalen – recognizes the indirect ways through which climate change influences conflict dynamics. It also expands on these frameworks in consideration of the fact that many of the characteristics that make a state vulnerable to conflict also make it vulnerable to climate change. This includes a recognition that armed conflict itself can have a significant negative impact on coping and adaptive capacities, and can subsequently result in a “vulnerability-violence” trap. In particular, the political ramifications of violent conflict can weaken state institutions and its direct fallout can include devastating environmental damage. Accordingly, it is critical for climate change analysis to incorporate an understanding of how state institutions historically and presently have created vulnerabilities (Buhaug and Von Uexkull 2021, 549-555). 

Before analyzing the theoretical relationship between climate change and state-building, it is critical to answer two key questions: what is the state, and how is it built? This question has been asked by many scholars throughout history, resulting in divergent conceptualizations. Perhaps the most broadly used definition in International Relations courses is given by David Samuels in the textbook Comparative Politics as “a political unit with sovereignty over a particular geographic territory and the populations that reside in that territory” (Samuels 2021, 27). As discussed by Tilly, the state itself is defined over time through a state-building process, which is conducted primarily through war against other states and subnational actors (Tilly 1985, 171). Through this process, the state establishes or re-establishes a public structure in a defined territory for the delivery of public goods and concentrates collective power so that it no longer requires the use of coercion against its citizens to achieve a given outcome (Mohamedou 2022). This definition captures the importance of sovereignty, or supreme authority within a given territory (Philpott 1995, 357), but it is also critical to underscore that output legitimacy, or the state’s ability to “meet citizen demands for resources or prosperity” (Werrell and Femia 2016, 224) is also critical. 

As defined by Ghani, Lockhart and Carnahan, there are ten key functions that a state must fulfill in order to exercise sovereignty and gain legitimacy, particularly in circumstances where there are internal tensions. These functions are: legitimate monopoly of the means of violence, administrative control, management of public finances, investment in human capital, delineation of citizens’ rights and duties, provision of infrastructure services, formation of the market, management of the state’s assets, international relations, and establishing and maintaining the rule of law (Ghani, Lockhart, and Carnahan 2005, 6).   

There is one function that is considered particularly critical to the state-building process: the accumulation of a legitimate monopoly of violence. This monopoly occurs not only by eliminating the claims of another state to a given territory, but also by removing the legitimacy of non-state actors utilizing violence. In Tilly’s conception, challenges to the state from within that do not upset its monopoly of violence are key to state building. However, the rise of non-state violent actors in the 21st century raises significant questions about the impacts of these actors on state-building. As Tugal describes, modern day non-state violent actors provide an existential threat to the state by decentralizing violence and therefore undermining legitimacy and sovereignty from within a state itself (Tuğal 2017). The loss of legitimacy and sovereignty can subsequently undermine the state’s ability to fill key functions - if a territory cannot be reached without contestation from non-state parties, then service delivery to constituents from that territory can become challenging. 

It is in this way that climate change is a critical part of the conversation on state-building. Climate change can significantly disrupt a state’s ability to function as described above, as it can challenge its sovereignty and legitimacy. Sovereignty is challenged not only by rising sea levels – which threatens to render the defined territories of small island states like Tuvalu and the Maldives uninhabitable – but also by increasing activity of non-state violent actors competing over resources. Climate change simultaneously undermines a state’s ability to demonstrate its legitimacy, as it impacts the state’s ability to deliver its key functions. Many of the functions outlined by Ghani, Lockhart and Carnahan above are essential for climate change adaptation. For example, “managing the state’s assets” includes the management of key natural resources such as land and water. These functions enable the state to implement adaptive strategies like climate-smart land and water management. In this way, a state’s ability or inability to deliver these functions (its adaptive capacity) is also closely related to its climate vulnerability, which can potentially have a negative impact on its sovereignty and legitimacy. As Katherine Houghton writes, “without effective action to strengthen the state and thereby enable adaptation, climate-induced adverse effects and extreme events may lead to the further destabilization of already fragile states” (Houghton 2012, 24) [2]. In this way, we understand that climate change and adaptive capacity interact in ways which can negatively influence the trajectory of the state building process.

Chart describing climate vulnerability
Figure 1: Factors of Vulnerability (Fritzsche et al. 2014, 20)

However, adaptive capacity is only one piece of climate vulnerability, as seen in Figure 1 (Fritzsche et al. 2014, 20). Vulnerability, as defined by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in the Vulnerability Sourcebook, must consider potential climate change impacts in addition to adaptive capacity (Fritzsche et al. 2014, 20-22). Climate change impacts are determined by two factors: exposure and sensitivity. Exposure is the direct impact of climate parameters on a given territory – its “character, magnitude, rate of change and variation in the climate” (Fritzsche et al. 2014, 20). Exposure combines with sensitivity – or the degree climate change adversely or beneficially impacts a system – to determine the overall impact of climate change. 

Sensitivity to climate change is comparatively neglected in research (Smith and Vivekananda 2012; Buhaug and Von Uexkull 2021).Often, the impacts of climate change are discussed as an input to the process of state-building and not as an output of its machinations. However, the state-building process itself requires war. War destroys habitats, pollutes invaluable natural resources, and causes fluctuations in both human and animal migration patterns – these impacts damage livelihoods, increase risks to human health and safety, and produce significant carbon dioxide emissions (Lawrence et al. 2015, 443).All of these factors can increase a state’s sensitivity to climate change. Simultaneously, discussions on adaptive capacity often ignore how the process of war and state-building negatively impact the state functions required to respond to variations in climate. War, inherently, makes it difficult to access contested territories and administer key services for environmental management and protection. It also requires the reallocation of resources from service delivery to war making— reducing the investment a state can make in its infrastructure. I will utilize the next section to demonstrate how this analytical approach to understanding climate change vulnerability plays out in real life, utilizing the case of Basra, Iraq.

Case Study – Basra, Iraq

The story of Basra’s transformation cannot be simply described as a story of ever-waning rainfalls and slowly rising sea levels. It is a story that must be told alongside the story of the Iraqi state.

Basra was once a land of plenty— her lands were full of bountiful date trees and a complex web of canals wove through her streets. She was a regional beacon for scholars such as Hasan of Basra and opportunities such as trade or attending the elite Basra School of Grammar, making it a key gathering point for the scholars of the Islamic Golden Age. Given her rich culture and lush marshes, Basra was considered a cradle of civilization, with some believing that she was once the literal location of the Garden of Eden (“Basra: The ‘Venice’ of the East” 2021) Today’s Basra almost seems as if she is from another universe— her streets are lined with trash, her waters ever-waning, and her lush palm date orchards are turning to salt-crusted desert. Thousands of date palm farmers have lost the livelihoods that sustained their families for generations and have moved to a city riddled with drug addiction where they contract illnesses like cholera from ill-managed waters. Amidst this backdrop, Basra is gaining considerable media attention not only for its centrality in many of Iraq’s wars in the past forty years but also for its visible and demonstrable vulnerability to climate change (Bulos 2018). 

The story of Basra’s transformation cannot be simply described as a story of ever-waning rainfalls and slowly rising sea levels. It is a story that must be told alongside the story of the Iraqi state. Through this case study I will demonstrate that Basra’s specific climate vulnerabilities are a result of the Iraqi state’s struggles to accumulate a monopoly of violence over the past forty years. While Iraq has faced numerous wars during its long history, this analysis will begin with the Iran-Iraq War for the sake of brevity. I will examine this through two lines of inquiry: how the state-building process has increased climate sensitivity in southern Iraq and how the lack of a legitimate monopoly of violence limits the state’s adaptive capacity. 

Map of Basra, Iraq
Figure 2: Map of Southeastern Iraq (Fitzpatrick 2004, 6)
Basra’s exposure to climate change

I will first give a brief overview of Basra’s exposure to climate change. Its primary exposures are related to increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation. From 1920 to 2010, mean monthly precipitation fell from approximately 30 mm per month to less than 20 mm (Azooz and Talal 2015, 70-73). Environmental impact studies have determined that the results of this climatic shift is significant: 35.7 percent of areas with vegetation cover and 45.9 percent of marshlands have been converted into salt meadows and salt crust, increasing salinization of the soil. This subsequently mineralizes ground water, worsening the quality of drinking water (Jabbar and Zhou 2012, 881). Soil and water salinization have not only had negative impacts on human health, as demonstrated during the Basra water crisis of 2018, but also have significantly reduced agricultural productivity. It is among the many complicating factors behind why Iraq’s date production – which used to be its primary revenue – has fallen by more than 20 percent since 1970 (Mahmoud 2022).

It seems likely that this exposure will only worsen going forward, with sea level rise serving as an additional potential risk.  A study that examined the potential impacts of sea level rise on major cities in southern Iraq demonstrated that 38 percent of Basra’s surface area could become inundated due to climate change-driven sea level rise (Abbas et al. 2020, 1189). On top of sea-level rise, changing precipitation patterns will continue to challenge the region. Basra has faced a brutal drought since 2020, which has decreased marshland water levels by as much as one meter per year. It is expected that droughts like this will continue to increase in length and severity (“A Dry Horizon: Iraq’s Interlinked Drought and Climate Crises” 2022). The severity of this exposure cannot be understated, but the impact of climate change cannot be explained through exposure alone.

Basra is sensitive to climate change for a number of reasons. One reason is its lack of diverse sources of water. Basra’s primary water resources come from the Shatt al-Arab river. The river is a confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, beginning where the two rivers join and ending when it spills into the Persian Gulf. The river has been slowly thinning due to a variety of factors, including geopolitics and climate change: since 1990, the volume of water that feeds into Iraq from the Tigris-Euphrates has reduced by 90 percent (Al-Muhyi 2016, 7).At the beginning of the Shatt al-Arab, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers pool into what were formerly expansive and lush marshlands. These marshes have similarly undergone a significant transformation, having transformed from an area of more than 8,926 square kilometers  to approximately as low as 1,296  in the early 2000s (Partow 2001, 32).This transformation is partly described by rising temperatures and lowering precipitation, but the full story requires understanding the wars that have occurred in Iraq in the past forty years.

State-building and Basra’s Waters: Battlefields of Mud and Salt

From 1980 onwards, Iraq has fought wars against various international and subnational actors in pursuit of territorial sovereignty and political legitimacy. The first of these wars that this paper will discuss is the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). For eight years, Iran and Iraq engaged in a bloody conflict along their shared southern border. At face value, the war was about the demarcation of the Iran-Iraq border, particularly regarding whether the Shatt al-Arab river would be divided at the middle of the river, therefore splitting the river between the two countries, or along its eastern border, thus encompassing its southernmost portion entirely in Iraq. Accordingly, the dispute was a matter of territorial sovereignty and control (Swearingen 1988). The war itself ended in a ceasefire that honored previous territorial claims set by the 1975 Algiers Agreement, but it was the first of a series of wars that devastated southern Iraq. While no in-depth environmental impact studies were conducted in the immediate aftermath, in 2003 UNEP investigated the impacts of the war. First and foremost, almost 80 percent of Iraq’s date palms were destroyed in an effort to reduce potential coverage for enemy forces. The demolition of these forests— which were the backbone of Iraq’s agriculture-based economy and were primarily concentrated in southern and central Iraq— had devastating implications for the rural communities of southern Iraq. Secondly, while exact impacts are unknown due to limited access to non-military personnel including researchers and international observers, the use of chemical weapons like mustard gas and sarin nerve agents likely had negative impacts on the agriculture and livestock in the area (United Nations Environment Programme 2003, 52-56). Unfortunately, southern Iraq did not have time to fully recover from this damage before the next conflict.

Iraq once more entered a state of war during the 1990-1991 Gulf War following its invasion of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein’s justification for the war was existential: Iraq was heavily indebted to Kuwait due to loans taken in order to fight the Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait’s overproduction of oil resulted in a crash in oil prices which were key to Iraq’s economy given the destruction of its once lucrative palm date orchards, and the country’s critical infrastructure remained in disrepair from the war (Stork and Lesch 1990). While not as devastating to Basra’s ecosystem as the Iran-Iraq war, the environmental consequences of the short-lived Gulf War were considerable. During the war, Iraqi forces intentionally spilled some six to eight million barrels of oil into the Gulf. Waste disposal in Iraq was severely disrupted, creating issues of illegal dumping and burning which may have released dioxins into groundwater (United Nations Environment Programme 2003, 56-70). For Basra, the political fallout from the Gulf War was arguably more detrimental to the environment than the spilled oil.

During Saddam Hussein’s reign, and amidst the Gulf War in particular, a number of dissenting factions settled in the Mesopotamian Marshes. The marshlands provided refuge to thousands of army deserters and political opponents who settled alongside the “Marsh Arabs” who had traditionally inhabited the lands. At the conclusion of the Gulf War and after a short-lived uprising in Basra in 1991, the Iraqi government began systematically draining the marshes. While the government argued this was done to further existing irrigation plans, government documents identified the draining of the marshes as part of a plan to “put an end to the hostile presence” in the marshes, which they believed included Iran-trained agents (“The Iraqi Government Assault on the Marsh Arabs” 2003). The result of this policy was devastating. Satellite studies in 2001 revealed that from 1992 to 2001, about 90 percent of the marshes had been destroyed. The loss of water forced massive displacement and accelerated trends of urbanization in Basra, as pastoralists who had traditionally relied on the marshes for their livelihood fled in pursuit of new means of survival (“The Iraqi Government Assault on the Marsh Arabs” 2003). Many of these factions subsequently participated in resistance movements against the national Ba’athist party that was in power.

Basra’s centrality to the Iraqi state-building process continued into the twenty-first century. In 2003, a coalition led by the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq with the objectives of “liberating the Iraqi people” and overthrowing the government of Saddam Hussein. Basra was one of the first places invaded by the coalition due in part to its strategic importance. Ultimately, the coalition succeeded in toppling the government. While inevitably there were some negative environmental impacts from the invasion, including leeching of dangerous chemicals into the soil, the coalition forces immediately began attempts to restore the Mesopotamian Marshes. Despite this effort, the marshes still have not recovered—  to date they take up roughly half of their pre-drainage volume (Zimakas 2022).

One of the primary tasks following the invasion was the establishment of a new regime through a new constitution, which a majority of the population approved in 2005 through a national referendum. This constitution had two key provisions that have subsequently disrupted the Iraqi state’s monopoly of violence and control of resources in Basra in the current day. The first of these agreements was a system of ethno-sectarian power-sharing that distributed state offices and ministries between Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish elites in a system called Muhasasa (Mason 2022). The second critical constitutional provision was a system of federalism, in which the country was subdivided into two subnational units: governorates and regions. While the majority of the country was divided into eighteen governorates, the Kurdish people from northern Iraq demanded autonomy as a consideration of the new constitution given decades of repression from various regimes of the central government and their critical role in overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s government (“Unpacking Federalism In Iraq: Insights From Basra, Ninawa And Sulaymaniyah” 2022, 6-10). Subsequently, the constitution established a provision to create “regions” that could be composed of multiple governorates and which had more political power than governorates. To this date, Kurdistan remains the sole region in Iraq. 

Iraq’s high susceptibility to climate change must at least in part be considered a legacy of decades of war.

The ethno-sectarian power-sharing agreement resulted in the emergence of a system of clientelism in Basra. In clientelist systems, as summarized by Allen Hicken in the Annual Review of Political Science, public resources are extracted by elites and allocated to chosen beneficiaries (Allen Hicken 2011, 300). Following the constitution, various rival Shi’a political parties divided control of key resources across the governorate, backed by unofficial “militia” who worked on behalf of these parties participated in unchecked oil and drug smuggling. This system of clientelism resulted in the manipulation of major government public works contracts, which continues to this day. For example, water infrastructure such as desalination plants are often delayed as tribes refuse access to government-selected contractors and political opponents use public works to opportunistically levy accusations of corruption against one another (Mason 2022).

The system of clientelism was particularly complicated by the number of non-state military groups that rose with the collapse of the old regime as a means of resistance against US occupation. Following the US invasion, Iran-allied paramilitary groups emerged and began smuggling operations in southern border areas of Basra. Many of these groups had well-established relationships with tribes in Basra as a legacy of their joint struggles against Saddam Hussein, resulting in some natural alliances (Badawi 2022). Subsequently, the rise of militias and tribes in the absence of the Iraqi government, the networks between tribes and militias, and the clientelist division of resources between political parties created a system whereby armed non-state actors could undermine the state’s monopoly of violence and control over its own resources. The state’s control in Basra would only further erode, both at the governorate and national level. 

The constitutional provisions for federalism have further undermined the central government’s legitimacy. A number of tensions have emerged between the national government and the government of Basra. For example, there is a great great amount of disagreement over oil revenue sharing between Basra, which has the majority of the country’s oil reserves, and the national government. Additionally, other restrictions on governorate power have intensified tensions. Governorates are unable to pursue their own large-scale infrastructure projects, some business investments in the governorate require approval from the slow-moving central government, and businesses seeking to obtain a loan must do so in Baghdad even if utilizing the state-owned bank with a branch in the same governorate. While the primary effect of these provisions has resulted in tensions between the governments of Basra and the national government, tensions increased between citizens in Basra and the local government who were unable to effectively respond to citizen demands without proper decentralized authority (“Unpacking Federalism In Iraq: Insights From Basra, Ninawa And Sulaymaniyah” 2022). Accordingly, in addition to a weakened monopoly of violence, the lack of clarity and devolution of authority has reduced the state’s ability to function and deliver key services. 

In 2011, the United States withdrew its remaining troops from Iraq. However, by 2013 a new challenge to Iraq’s sovereignty rose: the beginnings of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) insurgency in the north. This war had several consequential impacts on Iraq’s strength as a state. First, it resulted in the loss of vast stretches of Iraq’s territory to ISIS control as well as the redeployment of US troops. While the war was fought primarily in the north, Basra was not immune to its impacts. At times, ISIS controlled portions of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, allowing them to restrict the overall flow of water into Iraq. Second, the backdrop of these conflicts also weakened Iraq’s position at the negotiation with its fellow riparian states of Turkey and Iran. Turkey and Iran have built a number of upstream dams in recent years, significantly reducing the volume of water that is left for Iraq. Despite the national government’s requests for additional water flow, Turkey and Iran have yet to heed this request and it is unlikely that either country has an incentive to alter their plans given increasing water scarcity (Wille 2019). There is no transboundary water agreement regarding the allocation of the Tigris-Euphrates that Iraq can use to address the issue at the global governance level. Even if this issue were addressed, Basra would still have to compete with its upstream provinces and negotiate with the national government to ensure it receives sufficient additional water flow. 

As the state of Iraq tried to consolidate its sovereignty and territorial control, the lands of southern Iraq suffered. The impacts of war, directly and indirectly, devastated Basra’s once ample water supply and vibrant forest of palm date trees. The water that remains is at risk of significant pollution. The dramatic reduction in water volume has allowed increasing volumes of sea water to seep up the river, increasing the salinity of Basra’s primary source of drinking water. This also has subsequent, secondary impacts on Iraq’s soil, increasing salinity levels and further decreasing agricultural productivity. Additionally, the run-off from previous wars and underregulated oil industry activities results in toxic substances like oil and heavy metals finding their way into the river, meaning that Basra’s primary source of drinking water is hazardous due to both pollution and salinity. Some studies indicate that natural gas flaring, which occurs during the extraction of crude oil, has had deleterious health effects due to significant air pollution, which include potential increase in cancer rates and increases in respiratory illnesses like asthma (Haleem Ali Al Muhyi and Younis Khalil Aleedani 2023). As a result, Basra is particularly sensitive to climate change, as it already has a low volume of water and what water remains is increasingly polluted. Moreover, it is not possible to describe the visible impacts of climate change in Iraq as an exclusive result of temperature increases and precipitation decreases—Iraq’s high susceptibility to climate change must at least in part be considered a legacy of decades of war. 

 Non-state Actors and Climate Vulnerability

The legacy of war has not only left Iraq sensitive to climate change, but it has also hindered her adaptive capacity. Traditionally, climate security literature describes adaptive capacity as an intervening variable between climate change impacts and a Malthusian catastrophe driven by famine or resource competition (Brown, Hammill, and Mcleman 2007). This viewpoint does not explain why some states have a weak adaptive capacity or the relationship this capacity has to state-building and war-making. In Basra, decades of war and international intervention have eroded the state’s complete, legitimate monopoly of violence. Below, I will describe how the loss of this monopoly diminished Basra’s adaptive capacity and created a cycle of degradation and devolution of authority. 

The loss of a legitimate, central monopoly of violence in Basra, as it is presented today, was catalyzed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In many ways this increased the agency of four actors: tribes, militias, mafias and the private sector. While these groups can be distinct, it is important to recall that decades of conflict have created informal alliances and overlaps between them. While tribes have always been influential in Baswari society, from 2003 onward they were asked to fill a number of pseudo-governance functions (“Tribes of Basra: The Political, Social, and Security Issues” 2022). At the same time, militias and mafias began to solidify power as they conducted illicit operations such as drug smuggling unchecked by any central authority. These groups not only accumulated influence amongst people, but solidified their authority through the accumulation of weapons. The system of clientelism that took root following the ratification 2005 Constitution only furthered the influence of these groups. 

While the roles of tribes, militias and mafias have been defined by state absence, they have also been shaped by their relationship to the oil industry in Iraq. The oil industry in Basra is Iraq’s primary source of revenue– representing 70 of the country’s crude oil production and contributing to over 80 of its GDP (Twaij 2018; Kullab 2023). Accordingly, the oil industry offers prime opportunity for economic gain – particularly when the state either fails to prevent or facilitates non-state control of Basra’s oil resources. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, for example, it was common for militias to support illicit oil smuggling. Following the rise of ISIS in 2014, oil companies started to engage these non-state actors for security. This only furthered their legitimacy, resulting in the “militia-ization” of Basra (Hasan 2022).

Non-state groups were already influential in Basra, but the war with ISIS (2013-2017) furthered their relative power and influence. The war strained the Government of Iraq’s ability to fill key functions. The primary way this strain expressed itself in the south was in the reallocation of security personnel: from 2014-2018, thousands of army personnel and federal police left Basra for Baghdad and other battlegrounds in the north alongside the Popular Mobilization Units, which were government-funded militias mobilized to combat ISIS (“Tribes of Basra: The Political, Social, and Security Issues” 2022). At the same time, the war effort incurred significant costs. To fund the aforementioned Popular Mobilization Units the national government reallocated human resources from other ministries. To fund the increases in defense spending, the national government increased taxes and cut all non-oil investments including those for promised infrastructure in Basra. This resulted in the non-payment of many finished and ongoing public works contracts (Tabaqchali 2017).During this time, Basra’s water infrastructure fell into a state of disrepair. A 128-page report by Human Rights Watch laid out the extent of the problem: water quality testing facilities are unable to fulfill their duties due to the lack of trained individuals and limitations in supplies, chlorine pumps in key water processing plants remain broken, and approximately 50% of its piping system had significant leakage (Wille 2019). 

While militias and mafias began filling gaps in state security in the early 2000s, non-state actors have also begun fulfilling additional government functions.

The ”militia-ization” of Basra was also facilitated by broader societal trends, particularly the decline of the agriculture industry. While it was once the backbone of Iraq’s economy, the agriculture industry in Basra was destroyed following decades of war and the increasing pressures of climate change. This subsequently raised the profile of the oil industry, which further marginalized agricultural activity in a number of ways. First, industrial oil activities polluted a number of the remaining traditional agricultural areas in eastern Basra. Second, the focus on the oil industry indirectly led to an import-oriented economy which resulted in the import of cheap agricultural products from Iran and Turkey that undercut the goods produced domestically. As a result of these push factors, rural Baswaris migrated en masse to urban areas, particularly Basra city. Nationally, more than 70 percent of Iraqis now live in urban areas compared to roughly 40 percent in 1947 (Hasan 2022, 7). In a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 52 percent of respondents who moved to Basra cited a lack of economic opportunity as one of the reasons for their move, and 49 percent selected climate change (“Migration into a Fragile Setting: Responding to Climate-Induced Informal Urbanization and Inequality in Basra, Iraq” 2021, 8). As farmers move to Basra, more paramilitary and organized crime groups move to the outskirts of the city to take advantage of the opportunities an oil-rich area with poor central governance offers, including potential new recruits with limited economic opportunities. 

While militias and mafias began filling gaps in state security in the early 2000s, non-state actors have also begun fulfilling additional government functions. For example, a number of non-state actors have engaged in activities to support gaps in water administration. A private water industry has risen, driven by the lack of safe, publicly-supplied drinking water. In at least one case, a paramilitary group posted a video on social media demonstrating their capacity for water management by removing debris from a blocked waterway (Porter 2019). At times, state actors have undermined the government’s water administration to obtain additional access to water resources. Tribes often participate in the illegal diversion of public water to ensure their members receive sufficient resources (Birkman, Kool, and Struyken 2022, 31). Public opinion, while mixed, generally views these non-state groups more favorably and with more confidence than the state of Iraq. A 2022 household survey by IOM found that only 23 percent of urban residents and 14 percent of rural residents expressed confidence in local civil administration in Basra, compared to 73 percent and 52 percent for tribal leaders (“A Climate of Fragility: Household Profiling in the South of Iraq: Basra, Thi-Qar and Missan” 2022, 34). 

These non-state actors are not afraid to utilize violence to reinforce their position. Some tribes control vast amounts of water and have so many weapons that it is difficult to challenge their control. Their authority is such that even police fear to intervene, considering the clientelist structure of the government (“Prospects for Resilience Amid Fragility: Conflict Analysis of Al-Qurna and Al-Dair Districts in Basra Governorate” 2022). During the 2019 water protests, a number of non-state groups violently suppressed protests that called for, on top of access to clean water and basic necessities, top-down reforms on corruption and rule of law that would have undermined the authority of these non-state actors. The protests sought to solicit visible demonstrations of violence from the government as a strategic move to increase their visibility and base of support. In response, non-state actors worked side by side with security forces to conduct targeted assassinations of key activists in charge of organizing the movement, which reduced the number of massive crackdowns in Basra (Birkman, Kool, and Struyken 2022, 14).

In demonstrating their ability to function and challenging the state’s monopoly of violence, these non-state groups negatively impact the state’s adaptive capacity. In particular, they use violence to interfere with the state’s capacity to manage water. The same violent factions that refuse to permit oil projects to proceed without royalties also refuse to allow public works on water systems to proceed without seeking corrupt awards of subcontracts or bonus payments. On top of this, water treatment workers are sometimes subjected to threats of violence when attempting to execute their duties. There have even been cases of these entities scaring off foreign contractors tasked with building infrastructure to ensure the work goes to an Iraqi company instead (Mason 2022, 59). The impacts of this are that the government does not have full control of its water resources nor the level of access necessary to test water and build infrastructure without the support of tribes and militias. This may contribute to further environmental degradation which only solidifies the legitimacy of these non-state actors – for example as urbanization increases the exposure of formerly rural farmers to illicit job opportunities available from mafias and militias. 

The Iraqi state’s struggle to respond to citizen concerns, deliver services, and effectively control the monopoly of violence is significantly impacting the government’s perceived legitimacy. For example, a 2021 survey from the London School of Economics found that 55 percent of respondents believed tribes were stronger than the government and only 4 percent believe that the law is fully applied (al-Jaffal and Khalaf 2021, 19). Additionally, a survey carried out by IOM indicates that approximately 70 percent of respondents from Basra feel marginalized or neglected, and had little to no confidence that the provincial or national government were working in the best interest of all residents compared to a lot of confidence in religious and tribal leaders (“Migration into a Fragile Setting: Responding to Climate-Induced Informal Urbanization and Inequality in Basra, Iraq” 2021, 22). Amidst the backdrop of this sentiment, some studies have uncovered increasing support for Basra to become its own region similar to Iraqi Kurdistan (“Unpacking Federalism In Iraq: Insights From Basra, Ninawa and Sulaymaniyah” 2022). 

state-building and climate vulnerability
Figure 3: State-building and Climate Vulnerability can be a Cycle

The case of Basra demonstrates how the relationship between state-building and climate vulnerability is not always simple and linear but can also be cyclical, as demonstrated in which expands on the original climate vulnerability model defined by GIZ in Figure 1. Just as climate change can create existential challenges for the state, the state-building process, particularly whether the state has a legitimate monopoly of violence, can significantly impact its climate change vulnerability. In the case of Iraq, the disruption to the state-building process caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq particularly undermined the state’s monopoly of violence and resulted in the conditions which have allowed these non-state groups to thrive and accumulate influence. Rather than an intervening variable between climate change and sub-national conflict, Iraq’s poor adaptive capacity in Basra is a product of a vicious circle of the delegitimization of the state due to limited resources from its fight for sovereignty, the rise of non-state authorities to fill gaps in state function, the use of coercive measures to reinforce the position of these groups, and the subsequent loss of state control of resources and territory that are key for adaptation. These features feed into and reinforce one another in a way that leaks legitimacy from the state and feeds the authority of non-state actors. This lens of analysis paints a more nuanced view of adaptive capacity than traditional climate security literature – and recognizes the state as a central element both in driving climate sensitivity and in responding to its impacts.


If the point above – that climate vulnerability is a result of an ongoing state-building process and not just a source of instability – is applied, what are the implications of this analysis? The global response to climate change has generally been divided into two buckets: mitigation and adaptation. The IPCC defines climate change mitigation as an intervention to “reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gasses” while adaptation is the “process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects” (IPCC 2012, 556-561). Traditionally, climate change mitigation includes efforts such as adopting renewable energy sources or promoting sustainable use of land while adaptation includes disaster risk reduction and developing new, climate resilient crop varieties. For many scholars in the climate-conflict space, such as Katherine Houghton, responses to mitigate the risk of climate-driven conflict are normally considered as adaptation methods (Houghton 2012). However, according to the Climate Policy Initiative, climate finance has been disproportionately spent on mitigation efforts rather than adaptation efforts, with $571 billion USD in public and private money flowing to mitigation and $46 USD billion into adaptation (Buchner et al. 2021, 1).

Climate change mitigation efforts involve a level of international diplomacy and commitment. This is challenging in conflict affected states. As identified by Ghani and Lockhart, there is often a gap between a state’s de jure sovereignty, which they utilize when signing international agreements, and the de facto sovereignty which permits them to implement these agreements (Ghani, Lockhart, and Carnahan 2005, 4). In 2021, Iraq signed on to the Paris Agreement, agreeing to reduce 1 percent of its total carbon emissions by 2035 and to cut an additional 13 percent contingent on international assistance (Younis 2022). However, reaching these targets assumes a level of de facto sovereignty and control that does not exist. To meet this target, Iraq would need to reduce emissions from its electricity and oil and gas operations which jointly represent approximately 60 percent of Iraq’s CO2 emissions (“Iraq Country Climate and Development Report” 2022, xii). As 80 percent of Iraq’s oil output comes from Basra, this would require the ability for the Government of Iraq and contractors to access the oil fields. This is challenging: clientelist systems often make it difficult to procure public works contracts, militias control access routes and smuggle oil, and tribes might request a proportion of any contract paid to adapt the oil and gas infrastructure with climate smart technology.  

In this sense, effective state-building and consolidation of a state’s ability to function at the national and provincial level could be considered a form of climate change mitigation.

In this sense, effective state-building and consolidation of a state’s ability to function at the national and provincial level could be considered a form of climate change mitigation. Adaptation efforts are underfunded, and the definition of mitigation is rather narrow and does not account for the realities of climate change in countries like Iraq, which has only contributed to .28 percent of global emissions (Ritchie, Roser, and Rosado 2020).It is therefore important to explore state-building and conflict resolution as a method of climate change mitigation. Specifically, in Iraq this includes the central government supporting effective decentralization processes that could increase the efficiency of critical public works contracts including desalination plants which can help improve Basra’s water quality. 

Proposing this reconsideration of climate mitigation beyond Basra would require additional research. The linkages between environmental degradation and conflict are well known, but there is limited research expanding on how these factors influence climate vulnerability. In order to better understand and further validate this theory, additional case studies should be conducted in areas that both have a history of conflict and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This may result in a better understanding of not only how to approach the nested challenges of conflict and climate change, but also in producing a more effective strategy for deploying climate finance in conflict affected states.

*This article was edited by Omar Elhaj (Princeton University) and Patrick Fitz (Columbia University).

About the Author

JWilinson Headshot

Jane Wilkinson is a Master's student at the Geneva Graduate Institute, specializing in international relations and development. Her studies primarily revolve around the intersections of conflict, climate change, and the environment. Previously, she worked on conflict mitigation, stabilization and countering violent extremism programs in places such as Kenya, Kazakhstan, Mozambique, and Somalia. In the future she hopes to support decision-makers in forming smart, evidence-based climate change strategies in conflict-affected contexts.


1. The Ecological Threat Report (ETR) assigns countries a rank of 1-5, with 5 being the highest at risk of “ecological threats.” The lowest ranking countries on IEP’s Global Peace Index – Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Russia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Sudan have scores of 5 on the ETR.

2. The term “fragile states” is often debated and this paper will generally avoid utilizing it. However, literature on conflict and climate change tends to utilize “fragile” or “failed” states terminology to discuss states whose pathways toward statehood vary from those of Europe and the “West.”


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