How Climate Change Sparked the Crisis in Syria

A lack of water and a weak western response helped ignite Syria's chaos.

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In this photo taken Thursday, July 9, 2009, Ashur Mohammed, 60, checks his land in Latifiyah, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq. Below-average rainfall and insufficient water in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers _ something the Iraqis have blamed on dams in neighboring Turkey and Syria _ have left Iraq bone-dry for a second straight year.

What few people in Washington are talking about when it comes to the Syria crisis is the connection to climate change. While it may seem remote and implausible to Washington realists, the connection is clear. What is most disconcerting, however – vis-à-vis Damascus – is that America could have helped prevent Syria's violent revolution from escalating if we, alongside the international community, had done a better job helping out with one simple, but increasingly unattainable, resource: water.

Here's what happened: Prior to Syria's civil war, the country experienced a devastating drought impacting more than 1.3 million people, killing up to 85 percent of livestock in some regions and forcing 160 villages to be abandoned due to crop failures. Estimates that Syria's water scarcity problem would cause major social and economic instability, furthermore, emerged very early, just as President Barack Obama was taking office.

The warning signs were clear. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies published a report on the Syrian drought, noting that some 800,000 people were severely vulnerable, and "over the past three years, their income has decreased by 90 percent and their assets and sources of livelihood have been severely compromised."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Even America's own National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study linking more frequent droughts in the Mediterranean and the Middle East to climate change. The study noted that Syria was experiencing the worst drying in the region.

The international community, however, failed to effectively counter this crisis. A confidential cable sent from Syria explained the dire situation, with the Syrian minister of agriculture stating publicly that the economic and social fallout from the drought was beyond their capacity as a country to deal with.

The cable explained how Syria, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, U.N. Development Programme and the World Food Programme requested roughly $20 million from donor countries and donor organizations to provide emergency food aid, restore food production and safeguard agricultural livelihoods. In a direct appeal to Washington, an FAO representative in Damascus even expressed his hope that "improving relations" between the U.S. and Syria might encourage the U.S. to become a donor to the 2009 Drought Appeal.

The U.S. government balked at the appeal, saying: "Given the generous funding the U.S. currently provides to the Iraqi refugee community in Syria and the persistent problems WFP is experiencing with its efforts to import food for the refugee population, we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time." In light of America's lackluster leadership, the world's response was insufficient: Donor countries only ponied up around $5 million, a quarter of the total need. [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Lest we make this mistake again, how can the international community, led by the U.S., do a better job of responding – preventively and pre-emptively – to resource scarcity issues that have the potential to instigate social unrest and mass violence?

Beyond better funding and emergency aid response, we must first ferret out what leads to these resource conflicts and, in Syria's case, what led to its water conflict. Remember that Israel occupied, for decades, one of Syria's greatest water resources – the Golan Heights – which Israel uses for its water supply, drawing from the rich Golan-fed Sea of Galilee. In fact, up to one-third of Israel's water supply comes from the Golan, water that Syria sorely needed.

Internal factors also contributed to the chaos, as there were serious issues with how the Syrian government managed national water resources. The combination of growing water-intensive wheat and cotton, using inefficient irrigation techniques like flooding and leaky water distribution networks, meant that vast quantities of water were wasted. Exacerbating the problem further, Syria sold the vast majority of its wheat reserves when global wheat prices were high, forcing the country to later import vast amounts of wheat during the drought years.

Desperate for water, farmers drilled illegal water wells, rapidly depleting an already-low water table and causing an increase in the salinity of the water. In eight years, the number of wells drilled had almost doubled to more than 213,000. In response, according to the New York Times, the Syrian government began "to acknowledge the scale of the problem and has developed a national drought plan." Additionally, Syria tried to obtain international funding for programs to address the widespread failure of crops, but these programs were not ultimately effective given lack of funding.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

The West must realize that Syria is not alone in its environmental risk assessment; much of the Arab Spring is understood to have a climate change correlation, if not causation. Yemen is at the top of that risk list, struggling with severe water shortages. And yet America continues to countenance these revolutions and this violence with, primarily, violence. This is not an effective path towards prevention.

America, furthermore, is missing opportunities to preventively and pre-emptively intervene in dealing with root causes of conflict before they metastasize into violence. As Francesco Femia, co-founder of the D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security, noted, "many international security analysts were essentially predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring. They concluded it was generally a stable country. What they had missed was that a massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely."

Any political solution in Syria, then, requires some assistance on this front, lest the civil war rage on.

We must not miss these moments in the future. From Syria to Somalia there are underlying reasons for revolution that a violent response will not mitigate, transform or resolve. Increasingly, for many of these conflicts, the answer lies in something as basic as water, food or shelter. The answer does not lie in million dollar Tomahawk missiles made by Raytheon. The answer lies in a million water wells for an increasingly parched planet. Try that for a change.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Emily Wirzba is Program Assistant for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at FCNL.

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