Syrian Refugees and the Climate Connection

by Ray Grigg

Climate abnormalities are increasingly becoming a cause of the political unrest and the resulting social chaos that is sending record numbers of the world’s people in forced migrations as refugees. The United Nations estimates that 60 million people are presently displaced on the planet. In the forefront of this chaos, or lurking behind in some secondary but pivotal role, is an environmental factor. The four year civil war in Syria, for example, began with a drought.

With a population of about 22.5 million, Syria was a relatively stable country. Any civil unrest was sternly suppressed by its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, the son of a previous dictator Hafez al-Assad. But a severe and unprecedented drought in northeastern Syria between 2006 and 2010 sent an estimated 1.5 million destitute farmers to the margins of the country’s cities where they attempted to survive in wholly inadequate conditions.

Rainfall in the farming areas had decreased by 13% since 1931 — studies suggest the cause was altered rainfall patterns throughout the whole Fertile Crescent region due to global climate change. Then poor farming techniques combined with depleted supplies of groundwater to make the drought problem even worse.

An analysis of the situation by a US climate scientist, Dr. Colin Kelley from the University of California in Santa Barbara, was careful not to attribute the cause of the civil war to drought. Other factors were operating: the general turmoil caused by the Arab Spring uprisings, simmering tensions within Syria, inept resource policies, and perhaps too many people trying to sustain themselves on land now becoming marginal. Although the requests of the displaced farmers were modest, the existing political tension just needed one more ingredient for ignition.

“We’re not arguing that the drought, or even human-induced climate change, caused the uprising,” said Kelley. “What we are saying is that the long term trend, of less rainfall and warmer temperatures in the region, was a contributing factor, because it made the drought so much more severe.” (Guardian Weekly, Mar. 2/15).

Civil wars are not usually caused by one factor alone, but by the combination of many contributing elements. Had a record drought not occurred, had water use been more efficient, had the 1.5 million displaced farmers not been eking out an austere living on the edge of Syria’s cities, and had the government not resisted their request for modest reforms, then perhaps the Syrian civil war would not have started.

But it did. And it quickly escalated into a multi-faction disaster with paradoxical complications and deepening implications. After four bloody years of fighting, no clear resolution is apparent. Of Syria’s original population, about 200,000 have been killed, 8 million displaced within their own country, and 4 million are now adrift as asylum seekers in Europe and elsewhere — the largest tide of refugees since World War II.

“This is an example of the emergence of climate change beginning to influence countries in a negative way,” said Kelley. “And if it continues, we’ll see more examples of that in the future.”

The future, unfortunately, is arriving sooner than expected. The environmental deterioration contributing to political and social instability may not always be conspicuously obvious but it is usually present almost everywhere people are in turmoil.

Please Note: Last week’s omitted column, “Cultural Autism”, can be found on The Gumboot, Tide Changes or Speak to the Wild.