Drought, Climate Change, and Civil War
P. Aguirre, Chicago Policy Review
The political and social reality that Syria is currently facing is the result of various interconnected factors including religion, political reform, and economics. Recently, climate researchers have begun to analyze the influence that climate may have on world conflict, particularly in Syria. This idea has generated significant media attention. A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has analyzing how the 2007-2010 drought in Syria acted as a catalyst for today’s intense conflict and extreme refugee situation.
Researcher Colin P. Kelley and his colleagues take a broad approach to this topic by dividing their study into two parts: (1) a comprehensive literature review to describe Syria’s vulnerability to droughts and related historical consequences; and (2) an analysis of last century’s climate trends, and how anthropogenic influences made a scenario such as the 2007-2010 drought more likely to happen.
Before the drought, 25 percent of Syria’s GDP was attributed to agriculture; after 2008, this number dropped to 17 percent.
Water levels in Syria depend mainly on rainfall that occurs during the six-month winter season, as well as groundwater reserves. This study highlights how unsustainable agricultural policies implemented by the government of Hafez al-Assad caused an over usage of these reserves by incentivizing unprecedentedly high agricultural production levels. The overuse of ground reserves turned water for agricultural use into a limited resource and, therefore, increased the vulnerability of the rural population. In 2006, a severe drought affected the northeast region of Syria—where most of the country’s crops are grown—leading to a collapse in agricultural production. Before the drought, 25 percent of Syria’s GDP was attributed to agriculture; after 2008, this number dropped to 17 percent.
The study also describes how current President Bashar al-Assad’s liberal economic policies increased destabilization by removing fuel and food subsidies that many rural families depend on for their livelihoods. These policies continued despite the drought, making agricultural work unsustainable, thus inducing mass migration of rural families to cities. In 2002, the total urban population of Syria was 8.9 million, but, by 2010, it reached 13.8 million—a 50 percent increase.
To determine whether the drought played a role in Syria’s 2011 uprising, the researchers analyzed historical precipitation and surface temperatures using data from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit and the two Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN) stations located closest to Syria’s northeastern agricultural region. They found a long-term trend of decreasing rainfall amounts and increasing temperatures during the 20th century, which has been especially acute in the last 20 years. They also found that these trends were highly consistent with the estimates of 16 climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its fifth assessment report regarding the Syrian region.
In 2002, the total urban population of Syria was 8.9 million, but, by 2010, it reached 13.8 million—a 50 percent increase.
Kelley and his colleagues find that these long-term trends of higher temperatures and decreasing rainfall amounts are mainly influenced by increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, suggesting an anthropogenic effect on Syria’s climate. The study concludes that human influence on the climate made the severe 2007-2010 Syrian drought two to three times more likely, relative to natural variations in climate that could have brought on a drought of similar severity.
Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(11), 3241-3246.