In this article, InterClimate Network climate correspondent Finlay Miller explores the links between climate change, drought, and one of the most devastating conflicts of the 21st century. Should global decision-makers be paying more attention to the links between climate change and armed conflict?
In December 2010, the Levant region in the Middle East was shaken by an uprising of protest known as the Arab Spring. In Syria, a civil war emerged which has lasted for over ten years, resulting in an estimated 400,000 deaths. The Syrian war has been one of the most devastating conflicts of the 21st century, although its origins are not widely understood. Many causes have been proposed by commentators, including governmental corruption, economic degradation, and a lack of political freedom within Syria. However, one factor has been underexplored: the argument that anthropogenic climate change, by inducing drought across Syria and the Middle East in the runup to the war, was a crucial condition which allowed the conflict to break out.
Drought and climate change
A drought is an event of prolonged shortages in the water supply, whether atmospheric, surface water or ground water. So, what is its relationship to climate change? Rising global temperatures due to anthropogenic global warming increases the amount of water evaporation. When water evaporates, it rises and then condenses, contributing to the formation of rainclouds. Due to the increased evaporation rates, a reduction in soil moisture is observed during the first drought period. Over time, the reduced moisture within the soil will decrease the amount of cloud formation and therefore rainfall in the area, leading to a hydrological drought. As time progresses, the volume of water in stores deplete. Streamflow’s, rivers, lakes and even groundwater stores decrease, further exacerbating drought conditions. Linked to rising temperatures, Syria underwent its most severe drought in decades leading up to the conflict.
Syria and drought
Since the 1980s, Syria has undergone three distinct periods of drought. From 2006, a multi-season and multiyear period of severe drought contributed to widespread agricultural failures. Agriculture had made up over a fifth of Syria’s pre-war GDP. From 2008-9, the winter grain growing period in the major wheat producing governorates such as Al-Hasakah and Ar Raqqah, which accounted for 65 percent of the total wheat production, were severely affected by below average levels of precipitation with an average of about two inches or less in the period between 2007-8. Overall, agricultural production mainly in wheat and grains decreased dramatically in the years leading up to the conflict, resulting in diminishing food provisions.
The resulting falls in agricultural production can be viewed as a catalyst for economic tensions within the country which contributed to the conflict. Food prices began to soar as the poor harvests yielded less food than was needed for the Syrian population of approximately 17 million. The extent of this issue is highlighted through the introduction of the FAO Syrian Drought Appeal. Coinciding with the global food price surge in 2008, the issue of the lack of food provision was further exacerbated. Hunger turned to widespread dissent towards the ruling Ba’ath party due to their lack of economic support for the Syrian population when many were malnourished and hungry.
Following the agricultural failures stemming from the severe drought, mass rural-urban migration ensued. Many rural Syrians migrated due to the agricultural collapse in search of new employment and a higher quality of life than one in the destabilised agricultural sector. Approximately one and a half million Syrians flocked to the major cities such as Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Alongside Syria’s urban population growth rate of 2.5%, city infrastructure and resources were placed under greater pressure. The lack of housing resources in these areas led to many informal settlements springing up around urban hotspots.
These settlements were hotspots for poverty, poor living conditions, growing unemployment and increasing political unrest. Of course, the Ba’ath government did little to aid the impoverished residents of these migrants leading to unrest and instability. Dissent grew and criticism of the government spread, leading to pro-democracy demonstrations in the city of Deraa against the Baathist government. Once these demonstrations were met with force by the government, conflict erupted, and Syria’s long civil war had begun.
Climate change as a catalyst for future conflict
Looking beyond the link between the warming of our atmosphere and one of the most destructive conflicts of the 21st century so far, the worsening climate crisis is set to increase the frequency of unusual and destructive weather patterns globally. Droughts and other natural disasters will become more severe, and by acting on our knowledge of how this global problem contributes to humanitarian issues such as conflict, we can improve resilience to the problems posed by our warming climate. And it’s not just for developing our adaptation strategy. The influence of climate change in creating the conditions for the Syrian war highlights how far reaching the problem is, and how important a role we have in reducing the emissions which cause climate change to help protect our planet and ourselves.