Thursday, September 12, 2013

Drought and the Arab Spring

In the years leading up to 2011, Syria experienced a drought which many are tying to that country's civil war.  As James Fallows writes:
Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.
In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands  of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
Survival was the key issue.  The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned  that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the]  economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’”  But, his appeal fell on deaf ears:  the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.” 
I'm pretty sure that Syria would be in a civil war right now regardless of environmental conditions.  The Arab Spring spreading from Tunisia and Egypt in combination with Bashar al-Assad's desire to not be deposed is sufficient explanation.  However, drought leading to lower water levels in the Euphrates River valley has been linked to low-level conflicts in both Syria and Iraq, getting folded into the larger civil wars in both those nations.

One could also step back and look at the role of water shortages aggravated by drought in the place that started the Arab Spring wave: Tunisia.  Julia Clancy-Smith has written of how the scarce water resources of southern Tunisia have over the years been diverted to a multitude of commercial interests: tourism, industry, and even a bottled water company owned by a member of the First Lady's Trabelsi clan.  The next effect of this has been to contribute to both the impoverishment of the interior and migration to the coastal industrial cities, such as Sfax.  More research needs to be done on this issue, however.

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