“UNTIL the 1970s Basra’s climate was like southern Europe’s,” recalls Shukri al-Hassan, an ecology professor in the Iraqi port city. Basra, he remembers, had so many canals that Iraqis dubbed it the Venice of the Middle East. Its Shatt al-Arab river watered copious marshlands, and in the 1970s irrigated some 10m palm trees, whose dates were considered the world’s finest. But war, salty water seeping in from the sea because of dams, and oil exploration which has pushed farmers off their land, have taken their toll. Most of the wetlands and orchards are now desert. Iraq now averages a sand or dust-storm once every three days. Last month Basra’s temperature reached 53.9ºC (129°F), a record beaten, fractionally, only by Kuwait and California’s Death Valley—and the latter figure is disputed.
Unlike other parts of the world where climate change has led to milder winters, in the Middle East it has intensified summer extremes, studies show. Daytime highs, notes an academic study published in the Netherlands in April, could rise by 7ºC by the end of the century. Anotherstudy (by the UN) predicted that the number of sandstorms in Iraq would increase from 120 to 300 a year. The UN’s Environmental Programme also estimates that the harsh climate claims 230,000 lives annually in west Asia (the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent), making it a bigger killer than war. Things are so bad that even Jabhat al-Nusra, a terrorist group, is preaching the virtues of solar panels