Baghdad loses green space to real estate boom

Laborers walk past their temporary living quarters in the remaining palm jungle on the edge of the Iraq Mall construction site, in Baghdad, on October 13, 2022.. (Photo: NY Times)
BAGHDAD — Along the highway in the Dora suburb of Baghdad, the decapitated trunks of dead date palm trees rise up through the sandy soil like fingers from a grave, relics of once-lush groves increasingly being supplanted by a construction boom in Iraq’s expanding capital.اضافة اعلان

Many of Baghdad’s orchards and gardens have been sacrificed to largely unregulated building over the past decade, reducing the green spaces that have traditionally helped keep the capital livable as temperatures increase in what is already one of the hottest cities in the world. Construction — both legal and illegal — is accelerating in Baghdad amid a serious housing shortage and what Iraq’s prime minister has described as laundered money poured into major real estate investments.

“We are gradually losing the living lungs of our city,” said Maryam Faisal, a lecturer at Al-Farabi University College in Baghdad.

Baghdad, with its population of more than 7 million, is one of the largest cities in the Arab world. Intersected by the Tigris River, it was once the center of the Islamic world, known for its elaborate gardens. But green space in the capital has contracted in the past two decades, to about 12 percent from more than 28 percent, Faisal said.

Shaded areas in Baghdad are more than 2.5 degrees cooler than areas with no plant cover, according to studies. Without trees and plants, concrete and metal surfaces absorb heat and then radiate it back, creating what are known as urban heat islands.
“It is illegal to cut down trees, and if we catch them, we arrest them and put them in prison.”
Iraq, with its declining water levels, intensified droughts, and population surge, has been assessed as one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change. But successive governments have essentially ignored the growing crisis, according to environmentalists.

Muhmood Aziz, the director of planning for the Baghdad municipality, said the loss of green space had accelerated since 2003, when the US invaded Iraq. He pointed to “the weakness of the Iraqi state and the weakness of the monitoring measures”.

Pollution, heat, illegal tree fellingIn a city where summer temperatures have reached up to 51 degrees Celsius, the heat and increased air pollution pose particular hazards for the poor, who have no access to air conditioning.

In the past few decades, Persian Gulf countries, including Iraq, have warmed almost twice as fast as the global average, and more than many other parts of the world. Now, the worst months of summer are nearly unlivable.

A busy intersection in Baghdad on October 14, 2022.

In Basra, Iraq’s steamy coastal city, a recent New York Times report found outdoor workers at risk in the summer of heat stroke, heart problems, and kidney disease from the heat.

The suburb of Dora, on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, was traditionally a mix of residential, industrial and agricultural land, dotted with huge date palm groves and citrus orchards.

Municipal inspectors routinely investigate reports of palm trees being illegally destroyed — often by pouring kerosene or gasoline on the roots — to allow owners to build on the land. But the municipality’s tree patrol, even backed by Interior Ministry forces, is no match for the frenzy of development.

“In Dora, for example, we go in the morning and see that trees have been cut down in the night,” said Aziz, the municipal planning director. “It is illegal to cut down trees, and if we catch them, we arrest them and put them in prison.”

Mega urban expansionSome groves have been razed for what is expected to be one of the biggest shopping malls in the Middle East, the Iraq Mall, with almost 6 million square feet of international brands, cinemas, and dancing water fountains.

Real estate investment in Baghdad has become a prime tool to launder money in Iraq, notorious for corruption in politics and business, according to Iraqi government and local government officials. Property in Baghdad is routinely paid for in cash.

After the Iraqi government announced in November that $2.5 billion in public funds had gone missing in a tax scam, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani said a significant part of the proceeds had been funneled into prestigious Baghdad real estate projects.
“When you walk now in Baghdad, there are many areas without a single tree, especially in the newer areas.”
In the 1990s, when Iraq was under US-led trade sanctions aimed at its dictator, Saddam Hussein, Baghdad residents felled trees for fuel. After the US invasion, a population boom and migration from poorer provinces drove demand for housing and consumer goods that hastened green spaces’ disappearance, officials and researchers say.

Municipal regulations restricting the percentage of a building lot that can be taken up by a home or apartment building are now widely flouted. Many newer buildings go up just a few feet from the sidewalk, with no room for gardens.

“When you walk now in Baghdad, there are many areas without a single tree, especially in the newer areas,” said Faisal, the university lecturer. “Many housing projects now, when you open your balcony door, you find another balcony in front of you.”

‘My land is my honor’A couple of miles from the construction site of the Iraq Mall, Ahmed Salim Al-Jabouri, a tribal sheikh, sat in his home surrounded by date palms in a 10-acre orchard he has managed to keep. He is a holdout among his neighbors, who mostly sold land for development.

“My land is my existence and my honor,” Jabouri said. “How can one sell his honor?”

Shoppers at the Babylon Mall, which was built on a date palm grove, in central Baghdad on October 14, 2022.

Jabouri’s family has been living on the land since his great-grandfather came from Syria in 1841, he said. Some of the neighbors, he said, decided to sell after security forces cut off water to their orchards. While his palm trees remained, the less resilient orange, apple, and pear trees have withered from lack of water.

“Agriculture is finished because there is no government support at all,” Jabouri said.

Green memoriesFor many Baghdad residents, the gardens are a reminder of a more gracious era before families were scattered by conflict, when children played in greenery and lunch was served outdoors. Around Baghdad’s predominantly low-rise residences, even the most modest homes often had a small garden.

In Adhamiya, one of Baghdad’s oldest neighborhoods, one longtime resident, Nofa Abbas, 54, walked in what was left of her family’s garden, pointing out pink jasmine, lilies, pomegranate, date palm, and magnolia trees. As is common in Baghdad, trees were protected from the sun with netting. Some of the palm trees, watered from a well, were planted by her grandfather in the past century, she said.

Adhamiya, with its huge orchards near the Tigris River, was traditionally one of the coolest areas of Baghdad in the summer. The thick eucalyptus and Oriental plane trees that dotted almost every street blocked the dust.

“Even in August, you only needed a fan,” said Abbas. “This area was two degrees cooler than the rest of Baghdad.”

The orchards have gradually been sold off by family members, many of whom have left the country. Abbas’ home, once shielded from neighbors by acres of palm trees, is now overshadowed by the concrete wall of a multistory house.

She said at least 70 houses had been built on the orchards her family used to own, many of them with no trees or gardens. “Now people build rooms to sit inside,” she said, “and they don’t care about gardens.”

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