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The Republic of Iraq is located in an area with a rich urban legacy. Cities started to appear around the Euphrates and Tigris about 5000 years ago, when fertile land was successfully farmed to create agricultural surplus and became densely populated with human settlements.
UN-Habitat, as the UN programme promoting sustainable urban development, is proud to work within this deeply historic context. However, established in the 1990s during the Oil for Food Programme, the UN-Habitat Iraq programme is today confronted by very real and contemporary challenges that Iraq’s cities are facing.
These challenges can be classified into two categories: on the one hand there are general issues that are connected to the processes of rapid urbanization in a developing country and that can also be observed in other countries of the global periphery. At the same time, Iraq is enmeshed in a severe armed conflict and a big part of its cities and population are facing a fundamental threat to their very existence, represented by the group calling itself Islamic State (Daesh).
As for the general urban issues, Iraq’s cities accommodate more than 70% of the population and they are growing rapidly. Many people, particularly the poor, live in sub-standard housing and informal settlements and suffer from the health impacts of polluted water sources and growing traffic congestion. Women and children, whose focus of living is predominantly the home, experience the reality of poor services and absence of local amenities most acutely.
All of this is worsened by the advances of Daesh and the armed struggle against it, resulting in large numbers of internally displaced Persons (IDPs), destroyed infrastructure, cuts to basic services and disruption of local economies. In order to meet these challenges, UN-Habitat follows a multi-dimensional and coherent approach that is diverse and ranges from urgent tasks such as providing safe basic shelter for IDPs to projects which aim at building the capacities of local and national governments in planning and managing urbanization to more abstract endeavours like researching the dynamics of urbanization and the impacts of armed conflict.
In tackling the aforementioned problems, UN-Habitat is aligned to a global approach and commits itself to mobilizing the Iraqi Government towards the realization of the Sustainable Development Goal 11, “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” and its integration into the Habitat III (formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development), to be held in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016 process.
Despite all the challenges stemming from urbanization, it has to be emphasized strongly that UN-Habitat also sees great opportunities in it. If urbanization is managed in an inclusive and sustainable way, Iraq’s cities can become hubs of economic growth, drivers of development and non-discriminatory homes to its population, providing equal chances for everybody.