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.
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 seven 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, Ms. Faisal said.
Credit…A busy intersection in October in Baghdad. The city’s rapidly increasing population has led to choked streets and a housing shortage.
Shaded areas in Baghdad are more than five 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.
Iraq, with its declining water levels, intensified droughts and rapidly increasing population, has been assessed as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world 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 United States invaded Iraq. He pointed to “the weakness of the Iraqi state and the weakness of the monitoring measures.”
In a city where summer temperatures have reached up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit, dangerously high heat combined with increased air pollution pose particular hazards for the poor, who have no access to air-conditioning. Older people, infants and the sick are particularly vulnerable.
In the last 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.
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 rise in temperatures and regular electricity cuts have also contributed to the increased use of fuel-powered generators to run air-conditioners and air coolers for those who can afford them, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
While some of the deforestation is clearly illegal or linked to development with fraudulent building permits, major projects that have leveled thousands of acres of orchards and palm tree groves have been undertaken with the approval of local government authorities.
Anna Soave, the director in Iraq for U.N.-Habitat, the United Nations agency dealing with sustainable urban development, said some of the disappearing green space was attributable to a 2006 investment law that encouraged the privatization of government-owned land to build shopping malls and gated housing communities. Those parks and gardens that have been built are often restricted to residents or those who can pay entrance fees, she said.
The suburb of Dora, on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, had traditionally been 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 that has razed gardens and orchards.
“In Dora, for example, we go in the morning and see that trees have been cut down in the night,” said Mr. 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.”
Some of the groves have been razed for what is expected to be one of the biggest shopping malls in the Middle East, the Iraq Mall. It is expected to open next year with almost six million square feet of international brands, cinemas and dancing water fountains.
Ghaith Qasem, the head of Iraq Noor Islamic Bank, which owns 37 percent of the mall’s investment company, Jawharat Dijlah, said his group obtained a license from Baghdad’s investment commission to build on what had been state-owned land.
“Agricultural lands are dead now,” Mr. Qasem said. “The population density in Baghdad now is very high, and you are seeing Baghdad expanding and many agricultural lands turned into residential or commercial land.”
Across the street from the building site, where palm groves stood just a few years ago, construction has halted on another, smaller shopping mall — a common sight in Baghdad, where many projects are shut down for building violations or by militias and corrupt government officials who demand bribes for work to be resumed, according to Baghdad residents.
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.
In the 1990s, when Iraq was under U.S.-led trade sanctions aimed at its dictator, Saddam Hussein, Baghdad residents cut down trees for fuel. After the American invasion, a population boom and migration from poorer provinces drove demand for housing and consumer goods that hastened the disappearance of green space, 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 Ms. Faisal, the university lecturer. “Many housing projects now, when you open your balcony door, you find another balcony in front of you.”
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 hang on to. He is a holdout among his neighbors, who mostly sold land for development.
“My land is my existence and my honor,” Mr. al-Jabouri said. “How can one sell his honor?”
Mr. al-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,” Mr. al-Jabouri said.
For 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, 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 Ms. Abbas, 54. “This area was five degrees cooler than the rest of Baghdad.”
The orchards have gradually been sold off by family members, many of whom have left the country. Ms. Abbas’s 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.”
Falih Hassan contributed reporting.