How droughts have scarred Syria forever

What is the good, bad, and the ugly regarding climate change and Syria?

The good is that the Syrian government has finally signed the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. The bad is the climate-induced continuous droughts between 2006-2010 and the resultant human suffering. The ugly is that these droughts were a contributing factor to the civil war that followed.

The good is Syria’s record on signing climate change treaties. For example, Syria ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1995 and signed the Kyoto Protocol in 2005.

Syria signed the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. The United Nations held a plenary session of climate talks in Bonn, Germany. The Syrian Deputy Environment Minister Wadah Katmawi, who was a delegate at the meeting, announced that Syria was planning to ratify the agreement. Katmawi spoke to the delegates of the 196 nations participating in the climate talks stating that “I would like to affirm the Syrian Arab Republic’s commitment to the Paris climate change accord.”

Those concerned about climate change understand that governments need to initiate policies which will lower the amount of fossil fuel emissions as the first step in slowing down climate change. Therefore, they recognize that it is necessary for governments to sign the Paris 2016 Climate Change Agreement. It now remains for the United States to renew their support of the agreement.

The bad is the consecutive droughts that occurred in Syria from 2006-2010. Climate change contributed to these droughts. Some studies based on climate models have found that there is a link between climate change and drought in the Eastern Mediterranean region including Syria. Scientists find that climate change both increases and intensifies the number of droughts in the Mediterranean region.

Dr. Peter Gleick is the head author of “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria” published in Weather, Climate, and Society. He is an authority on both water and climate change. In this article, Gleick cites a study written about in the article “On the Increased Frequency of Mediterranean Drought’ published in the Journal of Climate, a publication of the American Meteorological Society. Gleick states that this study suggests that winter droughts are increasingly common and human-caused climate change plays a role. Dr. Martin Hoerling, research meteorologist and one of the authors of the study, states in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] publication that “The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred are too great to be explained by natural variability alone.”

The report by NOAA included a map which shows that Syria experienced the worst drying conditions in the region. The report also finds that ocean surface temperature patterns are responsible for the relationship between climate change and Mediterranean droughts. In recent decades, greenhouse-induced climate change has caused somewhat greater warming of the tropical oceans compared with other ocean regions. This acts to drive drought-conduced weather patterns throughout the Mediterranean region. The timing of ocean temperature changes coincides closely with the timing of increased droughts. NOAA has also stated that climate change from greenhouse gases explains roughly half the increased dryness which occurred from 1902-2010.

Dr. Richard Seager, climatologist, is one of the co-authors of “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syria Drought.” Seager and his colleagues find that increased greenhouse gas emissions will widen the Hadley cell, which is a “band of air that envelopes the earth’s tropics in a way that could further desiccate the lands of the eastern Mediterranean.”

Dr. Geick’s findings about the relationship between climate change and drought are confirmed by other researchers in the field. For example, Dr. Colin P. Kelley is a climate scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is part of the Center for Climate and security, with a specialty in climate change and drought. Dr. Kelley is the lead author of “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought” published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The authors maintain that climate change is a reality and is causing droughts in the region that includes Syria. The article states that “our conclusion is supported by 1) climate observations of the past 80 years, which show a downward trend in rainfall and an upward trend in temperature (telltale causes of drought); 2) climate modeling, which predicts that the region dries as the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase; and 3) theoretical results showing that this region will be increasingly dominated by atmospheric motions that inhibit rainfall.”

Thus, various scientists, doing their independent research, find that the droughts that occurred in Syria were, at least, partially caused by climate change. The article goes on to state that greenhouse gas emissions had “increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a three-year drought as severe as that of 2007-2010 two to three times more likely than [would be predicted] by natural variability alone.”

Unfortunately, there is a long history of the Syrian government promoting policies which exacerbates dwindling water resources. For instance, the administration of President Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) enacted agricultural policies that were not appropriate for a geographic area which is prone to drought and even under normal conditions does not have suitable rainfall for western types of agriculture. He promoted such water-intensive crops as wheat and cotton. His son, Syrian President Bashar Assad, also promoted and subsidized wheat and cotton. Various scientists differ on the exact amount of precipitation that Syria receives. However, they all concur that Syria has a very limited amount of rainfall. According to one researcher, on the average, Syria receives less than 250 mm (9.84 inches) of annual rainfall. Another source states that the annual precipitation is below 350 millimeters (13.779 inches) in more than ninety percent of the country. Still another source points out that during the drought even the region that received the most rainfall only received twenty to forty centimeters (eight to fifteen inches) whereas 20 centimeters (8 inches) is considered the absolute minimum to sustain agriculture. During the drought, the national average was less than 10 centimeters (four inches). Unfortunately, areas of less than forty centimeters (15 inches) are heavily dependent on irrigation.

The Syrian government also erred by promoting irrigation which resulted in the lowering of the water table. Even before the droughts that began in 1998, natural multiyear droughts, defined as three or more consecutive years of rainfall below the long-term normal, occurred periodically during the twentieth century. From 1900 to 2005 there were six major droughts in Syria. This means that both ground and surface water did not get replenished and were overdrawn. Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell are both co-chairs and leaders of the Center for Climate and Security. They point out that between 2002 and 2008 Syria lost half its water resources. Data from the World Bank show that in 2009, Syria had access to just 356 cubic meters of water per capita. This is well below the scarcity level of 1,000 cubic meters of annual water per capita established by the United Nations. Water experts find that less than 1,700 cubic meters per person annually poses a significant restraint on socioeconomic development.

Considering these facts, it would have been more appropriate for the government to promote crops that are drought resistant. The United States Agency for International Development points out that barley, chickpeas, and drought resistant trees such as olive are appropriate crops for drought-prone areas. Pearl millet is also drought resistant, and there are drought resistant varieties of sorghum. Even within relatively drought-resistant crops, there are varieties that are especially drought resistant.

Various experts warned that Syria was following agricultural polices that were inappropriate for its climate and inadequate water supplies. The World Bank in 2001 stated that “The Syrian Government will need to recognize that achieving food security concerning wheat and other cereals in the short-term as well as the encouragement of water-intensive cotton appear to be undermining Syria’s security over the long-term by depleting available groundwater resources.”

Furthermore, the World Bank in 2008 found that climate change in the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] would result in more frequent droughts and these droughts would be more intense. The World Bank stated that “According to the latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] assessment, the climate is predicted to become even hotter and drier in most of the MENA region. Higher temperatures and reduced precipitation will result in higher frequency and severity of droughts.”

Because of the droughts of 2006-2010, farmers lost many of their crops and herders lost their livestock. Gleick states that yields of wheat dropped 47% and barley 67%. There are various estimates of how many were displaced by the drought. Gleick states that by late 2011, the United Nations estimated that between two million and three million people were affected. After losing their livelihoods, they moved to urban areas. Dr. Kelley estimates that 1.5 million people were displaced by the drought. They moved from rural areas to cities and camps on the outskirts of such major cities as Aleppo and Damascus.

Similarly, the United Nations found that over a million Syrians left their villages and that the drought pushed two to three million people into extreme poverty. The migration caused by the droughts combined with an inadequate political and social infrastructure resulted in overcrowding, unemployment, and crime. It is estimated that between 2002 and 2010 the population of Syrian cities grew by fifty percent. The population growth included refugees from other countries. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, 560,000 Palestinian refugees entered Syria. In early 2007, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimated that there were 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. The number of refugees significantly increased the number of people reliant on Syria’s dwindling water supply.

Returning to the theme of the good, the bad, and the ugly, the ugly is that the Syrian droughts were a major contributing factor in the civil war. Recent research has found a statistical link between climate and conflict. The article written by Kelley et al. quoted a Syrian farmer’s response when she was questioned if she thought the Syrian conflict was about the drought. She responded by saying “Of course, the drought and unemployment were important in pushing people toward revolution. When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years, and then we said, ‘It’s enough.’” Mustafa Abdul Hamid is another Syrian farmer and is from Azaz, near Aleppo. Hamid said that “The start of the revolution was water and land.”

There is a historical precedent of climate change causing massive social upheaval. The Little Ice Age occurred roughly between 1300 to 1870 A.D. The Bubonic Plague and witchcraft trials were only some of the cataclysms that occurred. Global Crisis War; Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century was written by University professor Dr. Geoffrey Parker. In it he states that “the experience of the 17th century shows that long-term turbulence and unreliability of the weather inevitably produces calamitous outcomes for humanity.” The social turmoil caused by the Little Ice Age shows how much damage can be done by just a two-degree change in climate, and summer temperatures in Syria have risen about 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Abdullah bin Yehia, Syria’s representative to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, stated in 2008 that drought impacts were a “perfect storm” when combined with other economic and social pressure. He predicted mass migration from the northeast and that this “social destruction” would lead to political instability in Syria’s major western cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

Various United States sources have recognized the relationship between the climate change and social turmoil. For example, the United States Department of Defense [DOD] recognizes the detrimental political affects of climate change. The DOD has found that “assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

The United States Department of Defense is not the only source of warnings of climate change initiating warfare. Dan Smith, from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, understands the “linkage between the drought and the political instability, which lay behind the [Syrian] civil war, I think is pretty clear.” He goes on to discuss how the drought led to agricultural failures, which in turn led to migration and social upheavals. Smith states “And so this was part of the background behind the increasing feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment, and grievance. Which fed the first round of political mobilization against the Assad regime in early 2100. And it’s off the back of that the civil war started.”

Shortly after the drought began, the American embassy in Damascus sent a cable to the United States State Department regarding the situation in Syria. The cable warned about the “unraveling social and economic fabric of Syria’s rural farming due to the drought. It noted that the mass migration ‘could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at plan and undermine stability in Syria.’”

The United Kingdom-United States Task Force on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience is also concerned about the relationships between climate change, food shortages, and civil unrest. They report that climate change will make global food shortages three times more likely. Thus low-income countries could experience civil unrest as a result of expected increases in food prices. In 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that “A total of 8.7 million people—around half of the people remaining in Syria—are unable to meet their basic food needs.”

Various high-level United States government officials have spoken about the relationship between the drought and the following civil war. President Barack Obama said that climate change-related drought “helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war.” Secretary of State John Kerry said that “It’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record.”

Even the Syrian government acknowledges the relationship of the climate change-induced drought and the following civil strife. It assembled a climate change report in 2010, which took five years to complete.

The report affirmed that Syria’s climate was indeed changing. Temperatures increased “abnormally” between 2000 and 2005. The amount of available water had decreased. The report stated that “Most Syrian cities currently have a water supply deficit. Damascus, once an oasis with pure and ample hydrological resources, is today one of the thirstiest cities in the Middle East.”

The report also found that “A major shift in long-term annual rainfall patterns and a rise in temperatures are projected over most areas of Syria by the year 2100. … This will predominantly have negative impacts on the agricultural sector, which currently employs 25—30% of the total workforce and contributes an equal percentage of the country’s total GDP.”

The Golani brigade training at the Golan Heights. Photo: Israel Defense Forces

The Golani brigade training at the Golan Heights. Photo: Israel Defense Forces

Another factor in Syria’s dwindling water supply is the loss of the Golan Heights, a range of hills that was formerly part of Syria. Since 1967 Israel has occupied this territory. The preceding report pointed out that the Golan Heights formerly supplied 30% of Damascus’ water. Syrian officials insist that Israel is responsible for the “looting” of this water resource.

Unfortunately, Syria’s water problems are not over. Climate-induced droughts are expected to continue into the foreseeable future. A report from the International Food Policy Research Institute forecasts that at the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, yields of rain-fed crops in Syria may decline between twenty-nine to fifty-seven percent between now and 2050.

It has been estimated the Syrian conflict has resulted in the deaths of 400,000 people. This represents a horrific amount of human suffering. Four hundred thousand deaths means that a lot of grandparents, parents, children, and other family members mourn their losses. Widows and widowers now have to struggle alone. Besides family losses, places of worship and neighborhoods suffered losses. Entire communities are bereft of valued members.

The Syrian conflict has also produced many refugees. In 2016, the United Nations found that there were five million refugees living outside of Syria, and more than six million displaced Syrians within Syria itself. This statistic represents tremendous amounts of human suffering. Families were torn asunder, many not even knowing if their family members are alive, or who they should mourn. The extent of the pain and suffering of the Syrian people is impossible to quantify.

The theory of climate-induced drought that led to migration, which in turn led to social conflict is controversial. However, it can not be denied that Syria is located in a drought-prone region which means that water resources are frequently inadequate. Climate change increases the frequency and intensity of droughts. Also, the Syrian government made many mistakes which intensified the magnitude of drought-induced problems. These mistakes amplified the extent of social disruption. However, even taking into consideration poor governmental policies, drought-induced hardships contributed to the breakdown of the social structure which led to military conflict in Syria.

Therefore, even though it is good that Syria has signed the Paris Climate Agreement, there is a high amount of the bad and the ugly caused by climate change in Syria. It is bad that climate-induced droughts wreaked a lot of havoc. Droughts caused both crops to fail and a loss of livestock. Farmers and herders escaped to urban areas where they faced even more misery. Failed government policies increased suffering and unrest. The ugly is the social turmoil caused by the drought. The warfare increased the sufferings of an already besieged people.

Lenore M. Hitchler

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