Drought and the War in Syria

14 January, 2021


In which we explore whether Syr­i­a’s is the first “cli­mate war” in the Mid­dle East.


Jordan Elgrably

When you live in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia you become accus­tomed to, even blasé about cat­a­stro­phe on a grand scale: wild­fires, floods, riots, earth­quakes and, often for long stretch­es, the drought. In a state where droughts have last­ed for years, life­time Cal­i­for­ni­ans are occa­sion­al­ly vis­it­ed by visions of the Apocalypse—particularly dur­ing the most recent drought, a sev­en year chasm from 2011 to 2019. (You can imag­ine what would hap­pen in a state where near­ly 40 mil­lion peo­ple had to fight each oth­er over water.)  I con­fess that sci-fi movies in which the short­age of water is crit­i­cal, like Mad Max, 72%, Quan­tum of Solace and The Book of Eli, affect me more pro­found­ly than hor­ror flicks. The fear of the tap run­ning dry is akin to claustrophobia—running out of water is almost as bad as run­ning out of air, after all. Thus, dur­ing the lat­est drought, I was more than hap­py to econ­o­mize my water usage, to the point of flush­ing every third go and shar­ing a bath with my wife and young son, depend­ing on who decid­ed to go first.

Despite Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires which have been dev­as­tat­ing in recent years—and a dra­mat­ic drain on the state’s water resources besides—droughts have nev­er led to civ­il war. But in 2015, Pres­i­dent Barak Oba­ma claimed that cli­mate change result­ed in the drought in Syr­ia, which helped fuel the start of that coun­try’s civ­il war. In his words:

Around the world, cli­mate change increas­es the risk of insta­bil­i­ty and con­flict. Ris­ing seas are already swal­low­ing low-lying lands, from Bangladesh to Pacif­ic islands, forc­ing peo­ple from their homes. Caribbean islands and Cen­tral Amer­i­can coasts are vul­ner­a­ble, as well. Glob­al­ly, we could see a rise in cli­mate change refugees…Elsewhere, more intense droughts will exac­er­bate short­ages of water and food, increase com­pe­ti­tion for resources, and cre­ate the poten­tial for mass migra­tions and new ten­sions. All of which is why the Pen­ta­gon calls cli­mate change a “threat multiplier”…It’s now believed that drought and crop fail­ures and high food prices helped fuel the ear­ly unrest in Syr­ia, which descend­ed into civ­il war in the heart of the Mid­dle East. —Barak Oba­ma

The drought has been devastating, placing an additional burden on Syrian families. In the east and northeast, many have abandoned their villages (Photo: Stephen Starr, IRIN)
The drought has been dev­as­tat­ing, plac­ing an addi­tion­al bur­den on Syr­i­an fam­i­lies. In the east and north­east, many have aban­doned their vil­lages (Pho­to: Stephen Starr, IRIN)

Was Syr­i­a’s civ­il war in fact a cli­mate war in the mode of Dar­fur in the Sudan—called by some the world’s first cli­mate change war? In Destroy­ing A Nation, The Civ­il War in Syr­ia (2017), Niko­laos Van Dam argued that, “In the years pre­ced­ing the Syr­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion, the agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my [ital­ics mine] had been severe­ly affect­ed by drought, report­ed­ly the worst for at least 500 years, caus­ing more than a mil­lion rur­al peo­ple to migrate to the cities. This added up to the sit­u­a­tion being explosive.” 

It is essen­tial to point out that the drought in Syr­ia was said to have begun in 2006, years earlier.

In their book Burn­ing Coun­try, Robin Yasin-Kassab and Leila Al-Sha­mi not­ed, “By 2010 the drought had pushed between two and three mil­lion Syr­i­ans into extreme pover­ty, destroy­ing the liveli­hoods of around 800,000 farm­ers and herders, and forc­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands off their lands.”

Look­ing a lit­tle fur­ther, I found that in the Oct. 13, 2010 edi­tion of the New York Times, a jour­nal­ist sent to report on the drought vis­it­ed north­east­ern Syr­i­a’s Raqqa (lat­er to become the fief­dom of ISIS before Bashar Al-Assad’s forces took back the town in 2017). At first, his words remind­ed me of a 1930s Baedek­er’s trav­el guide as he waxed poet­ic. The NYT jour­nal­ist wrote:

The farm­lands spread­ing north and east of this Euphrates Riv­er town were once the bread­bas­ket of the region, a vast expanse of gold­en wheat fields and bucol­ic sheep herds.

Now, after four con­sec­u­tive years of drought, this heart­land of the Fer­tile Cres­cent — includ­ing much of neigh­bor­ing Iraq — appears to be turn­ing bar­ren, cli­mate sci­en­tists say. Ancient irri­ga­tion sys­tems have col­lapsed, under­ground water sources have run dry and hun­dreds of vil­lages have been aban­doned as farm­lands turn to cracked desert and graz­ing ani­mals die off. Sand­storms have become far more com­mon, and vast tent cities of dis­pos­sessed farm­ers and their fam­i­lies have risen up around the larg­er towns and cities of Syr­ia and Iraq.

Instead of carrying toys or school books, children in Hassakeh carry heavy water bottles and containers (Photo: ICRC).
Instead of car­ry­ing toys or school books, chil­dren in Has­sakeh car­ry heavy water bot­tles and con­tain­ers (Pho­to: ICRC).

Not all observers are con­vinced that Syr­i­a’s drought fueled its civ­il war. In 2017, two Swedish researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lund pro­duced a paper large­ly con­trar­i­an in its argu­ments. Lina Eklund and Dar­cy Thomp­son wrote: “The drought which affect­ed Syr­ia has been described as a severe, mul­ti-year drought that last­ed between 2006 and 2010. But rain­fall lev­els in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 were close to nor­mal, both in Syr­ia as a whole and in the north­east­ern ‘bread bas­ket’ region. This sug­gests that only 2008 was a real drought year.” They went on to say that the rela­tion­ship between cli­mate change, drought, migra­tion and con­flict is not entire­ly clear. Assum­ing they are neu­tral and dis­pas­sion­ate aca­d­e­mics, what then? 

Eklund and Thomp­son allowed that “there was a mass exo­dus of farm­ing fam­i­lies from the worst drought-affect­ed areas in the north of the country…to the near­by cities of Dam­as­cus, Hama and Alep­po. How­ev­er, what role this migra­tion played in help­ing to fuel the upris­ings and then the con­flict is far from clear.” Our friend­ly Swedes con­clud­ed that, “Con­flict is not inevitable in the face of drought.” 

Regard­less, the harsh lack of water chal­lenged liveli­hoods for thou­sands of farm­ers and caused more than a mil­lion Syr­i­ans to migrate to cities where they were often unwel­come strangers, clam­or­ing for already-scarce employ­ment. Imag­ine that addi­tion­al­ly, many kept their frus­tra­tions bot­tled up out of fear of the mukhabarat (secret police), where in a cul­ture of repres­sion, polit­i­cal speech is policed and pun­ished severe­ly. Life under Assad’s King­dom of Silence would only fuel fur­ther anger and resent­ment, when food, water and jobs were in short supply.

Displaced 11-year-old fills water from a cistern at a camp for displaced Syrians near the Turkish border in the northern countryside of Idlib (Photo: Anas Alkharboutli, AP Images)
Dis­placed 11-year-old fills water from a cis­tern at a camp for dis­placed Syr­i­ans near the Turk­ish bor­der in the north­ern coun­try­side of Idlib (Pho­to: Anas Alkhar­bout­li, AP Images)

In Octo­ber, the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross report­ed that the city of Has­sakeh, in north­east­ern Syr­ia, had expe­ri­enced its worst water short­age in years, and Human Rights Watch has decried water short­ages in north­ern Syr­ia along the Turk­ish bor­der, includ­ing and espe­cial­ly in the refugee camps, where HRW rep­re­sen­ta­tives have “doc­u­ment­ed dire con­di­tions…includ­ing over­flow­ing latrines, sewage trick­ling into tat­tered tents, and res­i­dents drink­ing wash water from tanks con­tain­ing worms. These con­di­tions are like­ly to be exac­er­bat­ed with the water sup­plies cut off, and will only put the pop­u­la­tion at greater risk of con­tract­ing coro­n­avirus.” Most heart­break­ing is observ­ing chil­dren who suf­fer from lack of water and nour­ish­ment. As the ICRC report­ed, “Haidar, an 11-year-old said: ‘We are dying, and we need every drop of water.’ ”

After a decade of con­flict, an esti­mat­ed 15 mil­lion Syr­i­ans lack clean water. Inter­na­tion­al relief agen­cies remain focused on bring­ing food and water to the region. The non­prof­it group Action Against Hunger points out that among its “top pri­or­i­ties is to meet the immense need for access to clean water, safe san­i­ta­tion, and healthy hygiene” in Syria.

This year on the 22nd of March, the Unit­ed Nations marks World Water Day, and on June 17, World Day to Com­bat Deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and Drought. UN ecol­o­gists argue that drought isn’t inevitable. “Deser­ti­fi­ca­tion does not refer to the expan­sion of exist­ing deserts. It occurs because dry­land ecosys­tems, which cov­er over one third of the world’s land area, are extreme­ly vul­ner­a­ble to over­ex­ploita­tion and inap­pro­pri­ate land use. Pover­ty, polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, defor­esta­tion, over­graz­ing and bad irri­ga­tion prac­tices can all under­mine the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of the land…At the same time, strength­en­ing the resilience of our food and water sys­tems can help reduce the effects of the pan­dem­ic on glob­al pover­ty and food insecurity.”

It remains true that more peo­ple in the world have access to a mobile phone than basic san­i­ta­tion and clean drink­ing water. One of the first chal­lenges of the so-called Fourth Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly for the parched regions of the Arab world and Africa, is to make clean, safe drink­ing water avail­able at low- or no-cost to mil­lions of peo­ple. A cou­ple of years ago the World Eco­nom­ic Forum pub­lished a report enti­tled “Har­ness­ing the Fourth Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion for Water,” in which the authors came to a rosy con­clu­sion. They envi­sioned “ensur­ing uni­ver­sal access to safe drink­ing water along with water for indus­try, ener­gy, agri­cul­ture and ecosys­tems,” although they did­n’t ven­ture at what cost. 

At the end of the day, even if Syr­i­a’s civ­il war was not direct­ly caused by cli­mate change, the drought has meant last­ing dam­age. Says Nodi­ra Akhmed­khod­jae­va in an Alep­po Project report from the Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty in Budapest, “Syr­ia is dry­ing up and will only get drier…Reconstruction is going to have to deal with the issue of drought and per­ma­nent water short­ages the coun­try will face, in part because of poli­cies of the past six decades and in part because of cli­mate change.”

Whether you live in Cal­i­for­nia, Syr­ia or the south of France, for that mat­ter (where drought has been a real­i­ty for years), the future is already here. It is time we under­stood that cli­mate change does­n’t care whether we believe it’s real or not; ris­ing sea lev­els, wild­fires and water short­ages are here to stay. Ques­tion is, what actions will we take col­lec­tive­ly to stave off thirst on earth?



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