How climate change is linked to Syria's war

Severe drought and water shortages are an overlooked factor in the region's unrest

Published September 10, 2013 4:14PM (EDT)

A study out last month linked rising global temperatures to war, foretelling a 50 percent increase in violent conflict by 2050. This could be the same thing we're seeing now in Syria, according to the Center for Climate and Security. The think tank's co-founders, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, told the Washington Post's Brad Plumer that severe drought in the region -- which displaced over 1.5 million people -- likely contributed to Syria's civil war. According to Femia:

We found it very interesting that right up to the day before the revolt began in Daraa, 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.

Around 75 percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas — urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. But this massive displacement mostly wasn’t reported. So it wasn’t factoring into various security analyses. People assumed Syria was relatively stable compared to Egypt.

Femia and Werrell aren't trying to convince anyone that drought caused Syria, only that climate conditions can contribute to unrest. They've traced a path, for example, from climate change, to droughts, to a wheat shortage, to rising prices, to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, where "food prices may have played a role in broadening the appeal of the protests." Werrell elaborates:

A lot of the way we approach climate change as a risk is to say it’s a “threat multiplier.” The way it combines with water or food can take an existing conflict and make it worse, or take a stable situation and make it worse.

One example we find is if you look at egypt, at the Nile Delta, the projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that they’ll see at least 0.59 cm of sea-level rise by 2100. Not only does that create a problem with flooding in urban areas, but there’s also the problem of saltwater intrusion in fresh aquifers. About 34 percent of agricultural production occurs in that area. A lot of focus in Egypt right now is how to get a more stable government, but if you want to look at how to build a stable government, you’ll need to be looking at issues like sea-level rise.

Mostly, they're only able to conclude from their research that more research is needed. We already know that mitigating climate change would be in the world's best interest. Barring our ability to do that, they say, the U.S. might want to consider helping vulnerable nations prepare and adapt before the instability caused by global warming helps spark further chaos.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Arab Spring Climate Change Syria Water Shortage