Is it simply a coincidence that the Syrian revolution was sparked at the same time the country was still reeling from its worst drought ever recorded? Unsurprisingly, a new study on The Arab Spring and Climate Change [PDF] finds evidence it is not.
The Toronto Star has a good overview:
One million refugees, more than 70,000 dead, scores injured, billions of dollars lost in destroyed homes, businesses and livelihoods: the net total, to date, of the conflict that started quietly in March 2011.
From 2006 to 2011, up to 60 per cent of Syria experienced the worst drought ever recorded; it turned the country’s verdant farmland into dust. “The worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago,” Femia and Werrell wrote.
Because of the devastating drought, hundreds of thousands fled the rural farming areas and moved to the already struggling cities.
President Bashar Assad’s regime mismanaged natural resources, such as water, and largely ignored sustainable agriculture, thus exacerbating the situation, says Femia.
As water became scarce, farmers turned to groundwater. Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center reported an increase in the number of wells from “just over 135,000 in 1999 to more than 213,000 in 2007.”
This caused the groundwater levels to plummet in many parts of the country.
Because of the water shortages, unrest and anger at the government grew, ultimately erupting in a revolution in 2011.
Water is also the source of potential conflict:
Desert covers much of the country and some areas don’t see any rainfall for years, even as long as a decade.
It is going to get worse, say a growing body of climatologists.
A recent report by Joshua Busby at the University of Texas, Austin, notes that between now and the middle of the century, some of the wettest and most populated areas of Libya, along the Mediterranean coast, are likely to experience increases in drought days — meaning no rainfall — from a current 101, to a whopping 224
That lack of rain is partly what led dictator Moammar Gadhafi to build an elaborate irrigation system to pump water out of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System. The aquifer consists of water from that last ice age, 40,000 years ago, so it is a limited resource. Egypt, Chad and Sudan all share the water, so tensions are sure to rise as the aquifer is depleted, which scientists estimate could happen in as soon as fifty years.
In Egypt, tensions rose following the skyrocketing price of imported bread from Russia, which was facing a drought of its own in 2010 and limiting exports.
This is troubling, but not surprising. In 2009, the International Organization for Migration reported that climate change had already driven 24 million people from their homes and warned that number could reach one billion by 2050. In 2011, the United Nation warned another fifty million climate refugees would flee their native homes by 2020. Bill Clinton has urged developed nations to prepare for a coming wave of climate refugees.
Here in the US, as we face decisions about fracking and building pipelines that threaten priceless aquifers, we cannot allow the allure of cheap oil or gas to distract us from the peace and stability that is provided by having access to clean water, fertile soil and productive farm lands.