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In a country long defined by its two rivers, the ancient marshlands of Iraq now bear harrowing testimony to the ravages of climate change. As temperatures have risen over successive years, rainfall and water flow have correspondingly depleted, and the livelihoods of its farmers have steadily vanished.

On a recent visit, I spoke to buffalo farmers who are desperately trying to cling to this vital source of life. For thousands of years, the marshlands served as a lifeline to the people of the area. Now, the rivers are reduced to mere trickles.

Norwegian Refugee Council research has shown that consecutive years of record low rainfall and drought in Iraq have led to farmers losing their incomes and livelihoods, and increasingly having to rely on food assistance. Communities are cruelly being forced to leave the only homes they have known for generations and search for a way to reclaim their dignity elsewhere.

Climate change also risks amplifying already endemic food insecurity in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, in particular. In a region that is already overwhelmed by a series of displacement crises, the ruinous effects of climate change will push millions more to flee as incomes are wiped away and hunger sweeps in.

In North Africa, an estimated 19 million people could be driven out of their homes over the next 30 years. The devastation wrought by climate change is unfolding in a context where war has scarred these and many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over several years.

The water and agricultural infrastructure have in many cases been partially or completely destroyed, rendering these countries more vulnerable to climate change impacts. But scaling up climate adaptation funding to fragile and conflict-affected countries, and efforts to address climate impacts on displacement have been mostly ignored in past UN climate change conferences and agreements.

That needs to change: The ongoing COP27 conference in Egypt and the next edition in the United Arab Emirates in 2023 could offer a much-belated rallying call for fragile states in the region.

There is an urgent need to set more ambitious plans to tackle the effects of climate change on displaced people – and to demand stronger action from international donors and decision-makers. The MENA region is one of the smallest recipients of climate finance in the world. Within the region, conflict-affected nations like Yemen, Iraq and Syria receive some of the lowest amounts from the regional pot.

Countries that are the hardest hit are among the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases. The large-scale destruction they have suffered because of conflict has at times been caused by international military coalitions. And yet the vulnerable populations in these countries often receive little support from international donors.

COP27 and COP28 give the Middle East and North Africa a chance to pressure the Global North to end this neglect. They can do so by ensuring that climate-related displacement and climate adaptation funding for conflict-affected states feature higher on the agenda at these conferences and in the follow-up implementation of plans.

There is also a compelling case for states in the region to advocate for significant increases in loss and damage funding. At previous climate conferences, the world’s wealthiest countries have tried to keep loss and damage funding off their agendas. They have been willing to see climate change as a collective problem but have shirked from assuming the responsibilities that lie at their door.

There is growing momentum to address critical financing for loss and damage during the current COP 27 negotiations – global calls are only growing louder, championed by civil society and reinforced by a growing coalition of states across the Global South.

They must be heard, for the consequences of inaction are real – and devastating.

In Syria, cholera has now spread throughout the country due to combined effects of climate change, and poor water and sanitation infrastructure. Droughts in Syria have become a regular occurrence. Vulnerable families are forced to spend more of their incomes on water and food, which pushes them into debt. Without water, and without enough to eat, even those conflicts that could be settled instead risk being worsened. Jobs have been wiped out as the agricultural sector is creaking towards collapse. Across the Middle East, the World Bank estimates that water scarcity could see the region’s economies lose between 6 and 14 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050.

MENA countries have the most to lose from climate impacts. Equally, they have the most to gain from ramping up their negotiations in support of stronger climate financing for loss and damage, and adaptation for the world’s most vulnerable regions.

The UN’s climate conferences this year and the next are an opportunity to forge rare unity and drive forward an agenda that puts the region’s interests front and centre by standing in solidarity with other vulnerable and fragile countries to demand climate justice and equitable financing. MENA countries must press for decisive action on the region’s adaptation needs and the displacement crises it otherwise faces in the coming years.

The stakes are too high to sit back or settle for well-meaning rhetoric that isn’t backed up by action. The communities that are suffering cannot afford to wait for promises to materialise in the future. With every record-breaking summer, with every drought, with every desolate field, there are many more in the region who are being pushed towards the plight of the people of Iraq’s increasingly dry marshlands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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