A sustainable development path for the Kurdistan Region

I acknowledge that the Middle East is faced with many challenges. Failed states, civil war, terrorism, lack of democracy, unstable economies, corruption and oppression are just a few examples of these challenges. Another challenge that often comes second to these urgent issues, is the one of sustainability. Sustainability is a concept that most people know about these days. It’s about a long term perspective on all aspects of society, but it’s also very urgent as we are facing changes, for example in our global climate and population distribution.

I came across this blog post about urban sustainability which made me think about the Kurdish case. The blogger writes that “in America we are unlikely to see this type of investment and policy emerge from the national government any time soon”, but that smaller initiatives at local levels can be identified. The first statement seems to hold true for Kurdistan as well, and I’m hoping to see more and more sustainable initiatives at both national and local levels soon. While my research is not concerned with all aspects of environmental sustainability, I have witnessed some issues while travelling Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011, 2012, and 2013.


Getting around in Erbil or Duhok is not easy if you don’t have a friend with a car. There are taxis, and the possibility to share taxis, but that’s probably the closest I’ve gotten to “public” transportation. And that means squeezing into a small car with 4 other people. According to the Kurdistan Board of Investment, “the Transportation infrastructure along road and air links is well developed”. There is, however, no talk about public and sustainable transportation. It would be a great step towards a sustainable society to invest in a safe, reliable and energy efficient public transportation system, for example a train network connecting the three main cities, and buses connecting the smaller communities.

Food Waste

At many of the restaurants you find a dust bin at the side of every table. When you’re done eating your meal, that is most often too large for one person, all leftovers and plastic plates/cutlery are wiped into the bin. It is shameful to ask for a doggy bag, because it signals that you cannot afford to waste the food. That mentality is problematic, because there should be more shame in wasting perfectly fine food rather than saving it. Furthermore all food security research points towards the conclusion that we cannot afford to waste food in the long run. What can be done about this? First a no-waste campaign that changes people’s minds about saving food. Then, the food waste that is unavoidable could be recycled and used for e.g. bio-energy or compost. In large parts of Sweden all organic waste is collected and used to produce biogas, which is then used for heating, electricity production or fueling vehicles. The residuals from the production of biogas can be used as fertilizers in the agricultural sector.


During my first stay in Kurdistan (in July) I learned that most electricity comes from generators and that when the “generator guy” at the University goes home and the air conditioner no longer works, it gets really warm. Kurdistan is an oil producer and it comes as no surprise that its development is following the fossil fuel path. However, a more sustainable alternative would be to explore the solar energy potential in a country with so many sun hours per year. If I remember correctly the light posts lighting up the roads in Sleymani were solar powered, which is a great idea. I also found a master thesis from 2007 exploring the potential for renewable energy in Kurdistan, which suggests exploring alternative renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy.

Water use

Iraq and Kurdistan is comparably high in water resources, but that doesn’t mean that water is not an issue. According to a IOM survey of water scarcity the majority of farmers in Duhok uses flood irrigation, which is an ancient technique that very inefficient and causes large amounts of water to evaporate. Meanwhile, my research about precipitation and vegetation show an overall decline in precipitation, and thus a decline in water availability. Efficient irrigation systems are necessary to secure and develop agriculture in a sustainable manner. One positive example of a sustainable development in this sector has been the rehabilitation of Kahrez (or Qanat), which is an ancient subterranean channel system that redirects ground water to be used for irrigation or household uses, without allowing for the complete depletion of the ground water level. Another example of water conservation is a research project that my colleague has been doing in Iran, called artificial recharge through floodwater spreading systems. Simply explained, this system makes use of water during floods and redirects it to a place where it can re-charge the aquifer. Storing the harvested water underground, as opposed to dams, means that evaporation is reduced and more water is saved for irrigation.

I’m sure there are many other areas where an integrated thinking about resources is necessary, but this is probably where I would start. The Kurdistan region of Iraq is currently developing in many aspects, and it would be a good idea to add sustainability thinking in the earlier stages of developing, to ease the transition to a sustainable society.


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