Syria’s Drought and Climate Upheaval

Drought Image courtesy of IRRI Images via flickr

Following “Superstorm Sandy”, it has once more become acceptable in the United States to talk about climate change and its repercussions. And a re-elected President Obama now feels less constrained to engage the topic.  It remains to be seen, however, whether this change of circumstances will do much to revitalize international climate talks, where U.S. recalcitrance has been among the reasons why negotiations have been stalled for years.

Both scientific reports and real-life experiences make stepped up action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions ever more critical. The UN Environment Programme now estimates that the “emissions gap” by the year 2020 amounts to an estimated 8 to 13 gigatons of CO2 equivalent.  This is the difference between a level of emissions consistent with a “safe” target of no more than a 2 degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures and the emissions projected under current policies.

The actual emissions trajectory increases the likelihood that the Earth will heat up by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. A new scientific report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics warns that the consequences will be cataclysmic in many regions of the world, including unprecedented heat-waves, inundated coastal cities, exacerbated water scarcity, increasing risks for food production, increased intensity of tropical cyclones, and irreversible loss of biodiversity.

In more and more places around the world, these repercussions are no longer just the stuff of abstract climate models or conjecture—they are becoming increasingly real.  Take Syria, for instance.  In late 2010, the New York Times reported that after four consecutive years of drought—the worst in 40 years—Syria’s agricultural heartland, along with adjacent areas in Iraq, was in deep trouble: “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.”

In 2008, wheat production dropped to 2.1 million metric tons, 56 percent below the peak reached just five years earlier. Although harvests increased again in subsequent years, they remain a quarter below the 2003 level.

Drought conditions in Syria and Iraq during April 7-22, 2009 (NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data provided by Inbal Reshef, Global Agricultural Monitoring Project. Caption by Holli Riebeek.)

Primarily affected by the lack of rainfall was the country’s northeast, which accounts for 75 percent of total wheat production in Syria.  The 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction notes that since the start of the drought, close to 75 percent of agriculture-dependent households in the northeast have suffered total crop failure.  Prior to the drought, Syria’s agriculture sector accounted for 40 percent of the country’s workforce and 25 percent of gross domestic product. Some 2–3 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty by a combination of lack of crop income and the need to sell livestock at 60–70 percent below cost. Syria’s livestock herd has been decimated from 21 million to an estimated 14–16 million.

This calamity is the result of a number of factors. Climate change is joined by resource mismanagement, including the overexploitation of groundwater (due to subsidies for water-thirsty crops such as cotton and wheat), inefficient irrigation systems, and over-grazing.

The drought has led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from rural to urban areas.  Syria’s cities were already under economic stress, in part because of the large-scale influx of refugees from Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Growing numbers of destitute people find themselves in intense competition for scarce jobs and access to resources. In an analysis in early 2012, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell write that “the role of disaffected rural communities in the Syrian opposition movement has been prominent compared to their equivalents in other ‘Arab Spring’ countries. Indeed, the rural farming town of Dara’a was the focal point for protests in the early stages of the opposition movement last year – a place that was especially hard hit by five years of drought and water scarcity, with little assistance from the al-Assad regime.”

Syria’s experience suggests that environmental and resource pressures, including climate change, could become an important driver of displacement. And while deep-seated popular discontent over decades of repressive rule surely is a key driver of Syria’s civil war, climate-induced pressures have added fuel to the fire. This is a key point: the repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void, but rather interact with a cauldron of pre-existing societal pressures and problems.

Countries around the world will not only experience the physical effects of climate change differently, but the way in which these changes translate into the social, economic, and political sphere will also differ substantially. Adaptability and resilience are key factors shaping the response. In divided societies such as Syria, the impacts of climate change could turn out to be political dynamite.  If we want to avoid such unprecedented experiments, then climate negotiators and their bosses—meeting November 26 to December 7 in Doha for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change—need to step up their game.

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