At least some people are looking at the geopolitical implications of long-term drought in the Middle East and north Africa, instead of rah-rah boosterism about democratic impulses and the shiny power of social media.
Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell via The Center for Climate & Security
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.
The biggest implication is that deposing one — or even a dozen — strong man totalitarian governments will not alter the situation on the ground. And projections — cited by the authors in the report above — show continued decline in rainfed crops in Syria “between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050”.
I agree with the authors and others that stopping the brutal suppression of the opposition movement in Syria is and should be the immediate focus of international efforts. However, the broader implications of Syrian drought — and the drought across the entire region — are not really addressed by the authors.
A region with growing population and rapidly diminishing water can only lead to a few scenarios, none of them good. Water wars and massive waves of ecological migration are not outcomes that the region — or the world as a whole — are willing to face.