Droughts have exacerbated the Syrian conflict. PHOTO: Reuters
In Syria, a civil war has raged for two years, and while many people have ideas about what should be done, few have any hope that the war will soon stop. In California, a forest fire the size of Chicago is now 80% contained, after weeks of coordinated efforts to manage the fire. There is a common exacerbating factor between the California Rim Fire and the Syrian Civil War: water, or, more specifically, the lack of water.
Droughts didn’t cause Bashar al-Assad to be a heartless dictator (and incompetent manager), nor did droughts cause sectarian conflicts to exist in the first place, but the increased heat from climate change has parched the Middle East, particularly Syria, and combined with Syria’s internal strife, the nation is barely holding itself together.
The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman gives an excellent summary of this issue in his column, Without Water, Revolution:
“’The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,’” said the Syrian economist Samir Aita, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened, Aita explained, was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work….
“Then, between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the United Nations reported.”
Unless there is a breakthrough in desalination technology, water is likely to be the resource where shortages cause large and unpleasant global shifts. Humans are decimating the water supply through constant usage on one end, and climate change driven droughts on the other. Furthermore, much of the water we use is fossil water, which does not replenish (or it does, but it takes thousands of years).
If we do not take steps to combat climate change, reduce water use, and accelerate desalination technology (98% of the world’s water is too salty to be used by humans), we will face an increasingly drought-stricken world, with fires and wars both increasingly common and severe.