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Why Baghdad will be one of the cities hardest hit by global warming

Fans spray air mixed with water vapor to cool down pedestrians on a Baghdad street on June 30, 2021, during a heat wave.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
Fans spray air mixed with water vapor to cool down pedestrians on a Baghdad street on June 30, 2021, during a heat wave.

Baghdad is already pretty hot. And it's likely to get even hotter.

A report from the European Union Institute of Security Studies projects that the number of days when temperatures in Baghdad hit 120 degrees will go from roughly 14 per year to more than 40 over the next two decades.

The study forecasts that the Iraqi capital, which is already seeing longer heat waves each summer and higher peak temperatures, will be one of the places hardest hit by global warming.

Baghdad set a new record high of 125.2 degrees on July 28, 2020. The next day it cooled down to 124.

In summer the Baghdad city government now regularly declares "heat holidays" ordering residents to stay home.

"When it gets to 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit) we already stay at home," says 70-year-old Razak Abdul-Zahra Mubarak, one of dozens of street vendors in Al Maidan square in Baghdad. "We don't need the government to tell us to get out of the sun ... when it gets like that."

Al Maidan square in Baghdad is essentially an outdoor flea market. On the dusty sidewalk and even in the concrete median of the street, Mubarak and other vendors hawk used clothes, fake designer watches, knives, computer parts ... just about anything.

Mubarak sits under a faded beach umbrella in front of secondhand shoes he's trying to sell. "Each year it's getting hotter and hotter," he says. "There is no rain. And even the winter has become very short." He says he used to only bring out his beach umbrella in the summer but now uses it all year long.

Razak Abdul-Zahra Mubarak, 70, sells used shoes on the street in al Maidan Square in Baghdad. "Each year it's getting hotter and hotter," he says — and even in winter he now needs the shade of an umbrella.
/ Jason Beaubien/NPR
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Jason Beaubien/NPR
Razak Abdul-Zahra Mubarak, 70, sells used shoes on the street in al Maidan Square in Baghdad. "Each year it's getting hotter and hotter," he says — and even in winter he now needs the shade of an umbrella.

Across the street next to a massive parking lot, Basim Mohamed Darweesh, has several old watches, some cell phones and a pile of jewelry on a folding table. He says he can no longer work at the market past noon most days even in the cooler winter months.

"The midday sun makes my head boil," says 56-year-old Darweesh. "I have to pack up my things and leave."

A neighboring vendor says Darweesh doesn't always leave soon enough. Several times last year, Darweesh has passed out from the heat. His fellow vendors had to drag him into the shade of a building, they say, and wipe down his face with water to revive him.

Despite the brutal heat, Darweesh says he doesn't have any alternative to this work.

"We are like fish. If we go out from the water, we will die," he says. "So there's nowhere else to go."

While global temperatures are being pushed up steadily by climate change, Iraq is warming twice as fast as the global average according to some studies.

Basim Mohamed Darweesh, a Baghdad street vendor, has several old watches, some cell phones and a pile of jewelry on a folding table. He says he can no longer work at the market past noon most days even in the cooler winter months: "The midday sun makes my head boil."
/ Jason Beaubien/NPR
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Jason Beaubien/NPR
Basim Mohamed Darweesh, a Baghdad street vendor, has several old watches, some cell phones and a pile of jewelry on a folding table. He says he can no longer work at the market past noon most days even in the cooler winter months: "The midday sun makes my head boil."

Last June the temperature in Baghdad pushed toward 120 degrees at the same time as massive power outages left many residents in the city of 7 million people without fans or air conditioning. Frustration over the government's inability to respond to the heatwave contributed to anti-government protests that eventually forced new elections.

"People tend to think of climate change as something that's going to happen from 2030 onward. No, it's already underway," says Florence Gaub, deputy director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. based in Paris.

Gaub is one of the authors of the study on the impacts of climate change in the Arab world.

As climate change intensifies, big cities around the world could see dramatic increases in temperatures due to what's called the "urban heat island" effect. Cement landscapes absorb midday heat from the sun and hold it near the ground. At the same time air conditioners, cars and other machines pump hot air into the streets.

Gaub describes a city sweltering under the urban heat island effect as being like "a body that has fever and cannot sweat." There's no way for the heat to escape.

So that means that in Baghdad, she says, "it will be even hotter than in any other places of Iraq."

Adding to the problem, some parts of Baghdad will be even hotter than others. One study last year by Iraqi researchers found that peak temperatures in different areas of the capital varied by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit on exactly the same day. Some parts of the urban landscape, particularly parts of downtown dominated by high-rise cement office buildings and an area in the south of Baghdad near the gas flares of an oil refinery, heat up more than areas on the edges of the city.

A hot summer scene from Baghdad on July 7, 2021.
/ Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A hot summer scene from Baghdad on July 7, 2021.

Gaub says better planning, more green space, planting even a few more trees could all help offset the effects of climate change in Baghdad.

"But this is the tragedy of Iraq," she says. "Not so much the extent to which climate change will affect it, but that there are tools to meet this challenge. Yet there is mismanagement on such a large scale that Iraq will essentially become a hostile environment for human beings down the line."

The head of Baghdad University's department of architecture, Dhirgham Alobaydi, agrees that a variety of factors, including uncontrolled urban growth, threaten to make Baghdad even hotter in the years to come.

There are construction rules and basic zoning regulations in Iraq, Alobaydi says, but those rules are regularly flouted.

"The downfall of the Baathist regime and Saddam Hussein [in 2003] allowed most people to just build whatever they want," Alobaydi says.

Driving through what used to be orchards just south of the Tigris River, Alobaydi points out a massive construction site that is slated to be the largest shopping mall in Iraq. With 5 million square feet of commercial space it will be nearly the size of the largest mall in the U.S., the Mall of America.

A shopkeeper sells children's inflatable tubs on a street in Baghdad on June 30, 2021 during a severe heat wave.
/ Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
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Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
A shopkeeper sells children's inflatable tubs on a street in Baghdad on June 30, 2021 during a severe heat wave.

Past the mall there's a vast expanse of bulldozed dirt. What used to be farmland is being divided up in to housing lots.

Many of the plots are empty. Others are construction sites. The buildings that are going up cover the lots from front to back.

"It's kind of like what we call a container house," Alobaydi says of the cement box design that has all the flare of an industrial shipping container.

There are no gardens, no parking areas, just 2-story brick and cement walls jutting straight up.

Alobaydi says Iraqis with limited budgets are building this type of house to maximize their internal living space so they can accommodate as many of their relatives as possible.

But in the process they're turning what used to be orchards and farmland into hunks of concrete and brick that will trap more heat. Making matters worse Iraq has an incredibly unreliable electricity grid, so unless the family can afford a generator, they won't have air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat.

And when the power goes out which it does all the time in Baghdad, "it will be disaster," Alobaydi says. "They won't be able to stay inside one hour." And because no one is requiring that the developers set aside greenspace as parks in the neighborhood, there will be nowhere to take refuge from the heat.

A technician controls an electric switch board connecting homes to privately-owned electricity generators in a suburb of Baghdad on June 30, 2021 as the national electric grid experienced outages amidst a severe heat wave.
/ Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
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Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
A technician controls an electric switch board connecting homes to privately-owned electricity generators in a suburb of Baghdad on June 30, 2021 as the national electric grid experienced outages amidst a severe heat wave.

Alobaydi says a lot of things could be done to make Baghdad cooler. Narrower streets can help funnel a breeze between buildings. Sidewalks cut down on the number of idling cars. Traditional Iraqi architecture has houses set back from the street with front gardens that make space for trees. Basically, he says, to deal with rising temperatures, Iraqis should go back to building houses and cities as they used to in the past.

And if things don't change dramatically?

"Iraq is going to face some difficult years ahead," says Florence Gaub, the EU researcher.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.