Global warming contributed to Syria’s 2011 uprising, scientists claim
Ian Sample, 02 Mar 2015, The Guardian
US study claims regime’s unsustainable agricultural policies meant drought led to collapse of farming in north-eastern region and triggered mass migration to cities and added to feelings of discontent
The prolonged and devastating drought that sparked the mass migration of rural workers into Syrian cities before the 2011 uprising was probably made worse by greenhouse gas emissions, US scientists say.
The study is one of the first to implicate global warming from human activities as one of the factors that played into the Syrian conflict which is estimated to have claimed more than 190,000 lives.
The severity of the 2006 to 2010 drought, and more importantly the failure of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to prepare, or respond to it effectively, exacerbated other tensions, from unemployment to corruption and inequality, which erupted in the wake of the Arab spring revolutions, the scientists say.
“We’re not arguing that the drought, or even human-induced climate change, caused the uprising,” said Colin Kelley at the University of California in Santa Barbara. “What we are saying is that the long term trend, of less rainfall and warmer temperatures in the region, was a contributing factor, because it made the drought so much more severe.”
From 2006, the Fertile Crescent, where farming was born 12,000 years ago, faced the worst three year drought in the instrumental record. Unsustainable agricultural policies meant that the drought led to the broad collapse of farming in northeastern Syria. Their livelihoods gone, an estimated one to 1.5 million people surged into the cities.
The arrival of so many rural families came on the heels of a million Iraqi refugees who arrived after 2006, causing what Kelley refers to as a “huge population shock” in Syria’s most affected urban centres. Many of the displaced settled on the edges of cities, where already tough living conditions were made more challenging by poor access to water and electricity.
Writing in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Kelley describes how the unsustainable farming practices in Syria led to a massive depletion of groundwater which was crucial for irrigating land beyond the reaches of the rivers.
But the dwindling groundwater was accompanied by a long term decline in rainfall in the region that affected farms watered from rivers. According to records Kelley studied, the Fertile Crescent, including Syria, witnessed a 13% drop in its winter rainfall since 1931. Another trend saw summer temperatures rising, which dried out much of the remaining moisture in the soils.
To explore the causes of the drought, the US scientists turned to climate change models. They found that the models predicted the drier and warmer trend for Syria, but only when they included human greenhouse gas emissions. The trend made such a severe drought in Syria more than twice as likely, they report.
“There’s a strong argument to be made that the long term trend contributed to this drought and was the reason it was the most severe drought they have ever had,” Kelley said.
The theory has not convinced everyone though. Francesca de Châtel at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, points out that rural communities had been left disenfranchised and disaffected from 50 years of policies that exploited and mismanaged Syrian resources.
In the journal Middle Eastern Studies last year, she wrote that the government’s failure to respond to the drought crisis was only one of the triggers of the protests that started in March 2011, along with a host of other political, economic and social grievances.
“The uprising has more to do with the government’s failure to respond to the drought, and with broader feelings of discontent in rural areas, and the growing gap between rich and poor, and urban and rural areas during the 2000s, than with the drought itself,” she told the Guardian.
“I don’t think the uprising would have started in Syria if other countries in the region hadn’t set the example,” she added. “I also don’t think the movement would have persisted without input and support from organised groups in Syria who had been planning for this moment for years and certainly since before 2006 or the start of the drought.”
The US researchers agree that civil unrest never has a simple or unique cause, and that the civil war in Syria is no exception. But they warn that global warming is predicted to bring more severe climate events, and that some could hit countries where they could spark unrest. Kelley’s latest work suggests that Yemen could face its own problems with reduced rainfall in coming years.
“This is an example of the emergence of climate change beginning to influence countries in a negative way. And if it continues, we’ll see more examples of that in the future,” he said.