Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest

NOAA concluded in 2011 that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.” Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010.  [Click to enlarge.]

by Francesco Femia & Caitlin Werrell, in a Center for Climate & Security repost [Addendum by Joe Romm]

Syria’s current social unrest is, in the most direct sense, a reaction to a brutal and out-of-touch regime and a response to the political wave of change that began in Tunisia early last year. However, that’s not the whole story. The past few years have seen a number of significant social, economic, environmental and climatic changes in Syria that have eroded the social contract between citizen and government in the country, have strengthened the case for the opposition movement, and irreparably damaged the legitimacy of the al-Assad regime. If the international community, and future policy-makers in Syria, are to address and resolve the drivers of unrest in the country, these changes will have to be better explored and exposed.

Out of the blue?

International pundits characterized the Syrian uprising as an “out of the blue” case in the Middle East  – one that they didn’t see coming. Many analysts, right up to a few days prior to the first protests, predicted that Syria under al-Assad was “immune to the Arab Spring.” However, the seeds of social unrest were right there under the surface, if one looked closely. And not only were they there, they had been reported on, but largely ignored, in a number of forms.

Water shortages, crop-failure and displacement

From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR) of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast governorate of Hassakeh (but also in the south), “nearly 75 percent … suffered total crop failure.” Herders in the northeast lost around 85% of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people.

The human and economic costs are enormous.  In 2009, the UN and IFRC reported that over 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood as a result of the droughts. By 2011, the aforementioned GAR report estimated that the number of Syrians who were left extremely “food insecure” by the droughts sat at about one million. The number of people driven into extreme poverty is even worse, with a UN report from last year estimating two to three million people affected.

This has led to a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. Last January, it was reported that crop failures (particularly the Halaby pepper) just in the farming villages around the city of Aleppo, had led “200,000 rural villagers to leave for the cities.” In October 2010, the New York Times highlighted a UN estimate that 50,000 families migrated from rural areas just that year, “on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled in earlier years.” In context of Syrian cities coping with influxes of Iraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion in 2003, this has placed additional strains and tensions on an already stressed and disenfranchised population.

Climate change, natural resource mis-management, and demographics

The reasons for the collapse of Syria’s farmland are a complex interplay of variables, including climate change, natural resource mis-management, and demographic dynamics.

A NOAA study published last October in the Journal of Climate found strong and observable evidence that the recent prolonged period of drought in the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East is linked to climate change. On top of this, the study also found worrying agreement between observed climate impacts, and future projections from climate models. A recent model of climate change impacts on Syria conducted by IFPRI, for example, projects that if current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions continue, yields of rainfed crops in the country may decline “between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.”

This problem has been compounded by poor governance. The al-Assad regime has, by most accounts except their own, criminally combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria’s natural resources, which have contributed to water shortages and land desertification. Based on short-term assessments during years of relative plenty, the government has heavily subsidized water-intensive wheat and cotton farming, and encouraged inefficient irrigation techniques. In the face of both climate and human-induced water shortages, farmers have sought to increase supply by turning to the country’s groundwater resources, with Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center reporting an increase in wells tapping aquifers from “just over 135,000 in 1999 to more than 213,000 in 2007.” This pumping “has caused groundwater levels to plummet in many parts of the country, and raised significant concerns about the water quality in remaining aquifer stocks.”

On top of this, the over-grazing of land and a rapidly growing population have compounded the land desertification process. As previously fertile lands turn to dust, farmers and herders have had no choice but to move elsewhere, starve, or demand change.

Internal displacement, rural disaffection and political unrest

Massive internal displacements from rural to urban centers, and significant discontent among agriculture-dependent communities, are ill-explored factors of social and political unrest in Syria.

Rural-urban population movements throughout the course of the recent droughts have placed significant strains on Syria’s economically-depressed cities, which incidentally have their own water infrastructure deficiencies. Poor have been forced to compete with poor not just for scarce employment opportunities, but for access to water resources as well. According to Damascus-based expert Francesca de Châtel, Syria has experienced a “huge deterioration of [water] availability per capita,” partly as a result of a crumbling urban infrastructure. Furthermore, 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.

The degree to which internal population displacement, and rural disaffection, are driving unrest has been difficult to study, given the continuing instability, but available evidence suggests that the influence of this phenomenon may not be insignificant.

Looking ahead

The al-Assad regime’s brutally violent suppression of the opposition movement is rightly the main focus of attention for an international community attempting to halt or lessen the human disaster unfolding in Syria. Unquestionably, stopping the slaughter of innocent people is the necessary first step. But a more well-rounded assessment of the dynamics of opposition in the country, including the possible social, environmental, and climatic drivers of unrest, will help policy-makers and opinion leaders fashion more responsible actions. In the short-term, stopping the violence and enhancing the likelihood of legitimate government will require an intelligent assessment of the needs and demands of the opposition movement, including those involving access to and management of vital natural resources, such as food, water and arable land. In the long-term, addressing the full gamut of Syria’s societal, environmental and climatic ills will be critical for ensuring a resilient, free and conflict-proof nation – one that can constructively engage in the international community.

— by Francesco Femia & Caitlin Werrell in a Center for Climate & Security repost

Addendum by Joe Romm: The fact that the 2011 NOAA analysis confirmed the climate models’ predictions of drying is especially worrisome because the climate models project a very dry future for large parts of the planet’s currently habited and arable land in the coming decades — particularly this region:

drought map 2 2030-2039

The National Center for Atmospheric Research figure [click to enlarge] charts the Palmer Drought Severity Index [PDSI] where “a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought.”  The PDSI in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

The 2010 NCAR study, which Climate Progress reported on here, notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

The NOAA study should be especially sobering to those in the Mediterranean since they clearly face some of the most extreme drying in the entire world:

The Mediterranean has long been identified as a “hot spot” for substantial impact from climate change in the latter decades of this century because of water scarcity in the region, a rapidly increasing population, and climate modeling that projects increased risk of drought.

“The question has been whether this projected drying has already begun to occur in winter, the most important season for water resources,” [lead author Martin] Hoerling said. “The answer is yes.”

Related Posts:


16 Responses to Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest

  1. Tom King says:

    The mantra in North America is ‘Market Forces, Market Forces, Market Forces’… as if there were no other organizing systems that our society depends on. This article reminds me that we might be woefully unprepared for a systemic failure that cannot be addressed purely by market forces.

  2. Arne Perschel says:

    I live in southern Spain. The past winter has been very dry. I’m afraid that if it continues, we will see unprecedented wildfires this summer. But, who knows? Maybe we’ll have a wet spring?
    I’m sure La Niña is partly to blame. And I’m sure the press will agree that La Niña is to blame…
    January for the whole of Spain:
    In February, some areas of southern Spain have seen less than ONE percent of their average precipitation:
    Winter is supposed to be our wet season.

  3. Leif says:

    Why are you and others willing to blame La Nina, a current with a temperature differential of only a few degrees C and a half a world away, while ignoring an area the size of Mexico a stones throw to the north, changing from sub zero frozen ice, to at least 0C+. A temperature differential of perhaps 10C or more?

  4. BBHY says:

    This is yet another huge story that is completely ignored in the American media. If it wasn’t for the internet we would be completely disconnected from any semblance of the real world.

  5. From Peru says:


    This drought should have affected the entire Near East.

    Anyone has information about Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine?

    We know that the last two are a chronic source of unrest…two peoples that want the same land, a small and dry land…

  6. Doug Bostrom says:

    Above all, we must be polite. Syrian farmers demand that we not take extreme measures to overcome political deadlock. Wait until human nature changes is the best policy.

    Thomas Friedman’s latest column is a nice tie-in to this post: Take the Subway

  7. John Tucker says:

    What cowardly and useless leadership the AGU has. Id be ashamed. Honestly if thats the “most trying” thing hes dealt with, hes an absurd excuse for a leader.

  8. Susan Anderson says:

    I do wish our press would mention this once in a while, often is too much to ask for. It’s clear that social unrest due to threats to survival is going to increase, as time goes on, almost exponentially. It is so important.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I have been doing some research on the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, and yes, there was a series of protests in Israel that involved exactly the same sort of issues as elsewhere.

    It is very good to see the climatic dimension of this wave of unrest getting some attention. As the situation worsens, it is likely to be the factor that pushes more stable countries over the edge into upheaval, ME

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You could get a job in the Australian MSM propaganda system, Arne. The recent flooding rains here are entirely the fault of ‘La Nina’. Any conceivable role for anthropogenic climate destabilisation was, for a while, heatedly denied, but now is simply ignored, never dared to be even mentioned. I believe Spain, like Sicily, Greece etc, has been drying out, La Nina or El Nino, for decades. An inconvenient truth.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Sorry, Arne-I see that you state La Nina may be ‘partially’ to blame. Please accept my apologies for going off half-cocked. You can forget about that job, too.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That’s the intention.

  13. John Tucker says:

    Increased agricultural coverage also has increased the reservoirs for pathogens. Even without climate change there was probably going to be problems with the food supply. Now there are real problems. For instance when conditions are favorable in Syria for a good winter wheat harvest a new strain of yellow rust [ ] is also excelling. Certainly even with cooler weather pathogens, insect and wind transmission is enhanced by climate change. Now the situation is all the more perilous.

    I don’t know if I look at the biological aspects of climate change correctly. I think the “common sense” focusing on a crop/species in the progression of drought/ increasing heat doesn’t seem to be really how its working or indicative of the extent of damage possible.

    The situation appears to be more complex in reality; about impulse events, invasive species, pollutant/nutrient issues and pathogens. The severity of the impact of climate change is not superficially apparent or predictable when focusing on one affected species/crop.

    For instance in Europe a new animal virus spread by midges will undoubtedly increase the price of meat worldwide and serves as example of complex the interactions of climate change that are more “real” than the reality of temperature and rainfall directly:

    NASDAQ – Morning Cattle Market Report (beef production this year is expected to drop from the first quarter for the first time in at least 21 years.) 2/28 ( )

    “A higher temperature means an increase in the number of midges, and that they feed more often. It also allows the virus to develop faster.

    Using weather and climate models as well as information on the biology of viruses and midges, Prof Baylis’s research group showed that recent climatic change in northern Europe has significantly increased the risk of viral midge-borne diseases.” ( )

    In one season Schmallenberg spread across Europe, including the crossing English channel without being detected.

  14. Joy Hughes says:

    Tunisia, where the revolution started, does not appear very droughty on the map. The man who self-immolated was a fruit seller…

  15. Paul d'Heilly says:

    When looking at world level political issues such as Syria, it is critical to recognize that everything is connected, everything. Climate change cannot be separated out from political turmoil, drought [which is not drought but a permenant and increasing worsening climate change], human population increasing from 2b in 1930 to 7b today and counting [an increase of over 3 1/2 times in less than one human lifetime], the innate nature of humans to maximize the use of vital natural resources [almost all are at beyond sustainable drawdown levels now, and most have been for 30-50 years] … and the 1600# gorilla in the equation, indeed the engine driving climate change, is the powerful economic model trumpeted by most industrial countries; market based Capitalism. WHY? Because market based capitalism demands ever more consumers, which demands ever larger natural resouce draw down, which demands by its nature that economic inequality worsens, political disruption extends … and so the wheel spins.

    James Hanson believes we have fewer than 10 years to substantially reduce carbon footprint before doing somay be beyond our capacity to successfully do so.

    Suggestion: Mentally take yourselve back 10 years … then look forward 10 years. Not so far away. Hmmmmm.

  16. Brandon says:

    Man, how old is this map. Yugoslavia? Czechoslovakia? What happened to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan?