A study, published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has linked a severe drought that helped fuel the Syrian conflict to climate change. The drought was one of the worst in the country’s modern history and lasted from 2007 to 2010.
The Syrian conflict has been ongoing since early 2011 when the regime violently attacked peaceful anti-government protesters. With no end in sight, the Syrian war has left more than 200,000 people dead and about 11 million people have been displaced from their homes. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says Syria is now "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era".
“Nobody really expected that we would reach this stage in which we will actually be having this national disaster in Syria,” Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian academic and analyst at Doha Institute, told Al Jazeera as the conflict entered its fifth year this past Sunday. “The heavy-handed approach that was used by the regime against the peaceful protesters was the main reason that this fairly peaceful revolution has turned into the sort of conflict that we are witnessing right now.”
The 3-year long drought caused widespread crop failure and a mass migration of people to urban Syrian centres. This alongside of other factors – such as corruption, inequality, poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies – “had a catalytic effect” and contributed to increased political unrest and, ultimately, civil war.
Although the region normally experiences periodic dry spells, the study, which is based on meteorological data, determined that the extreme nature of the Syrian drought couldn’t be due to natural changes alone. The study’s authors linked the drought to century-long trends towards hotter and drier conditions in the region – which mirrored computer models of human influences on the climate system, i.e. increases in greenhouse-gas emissions causing climate change. Colin Kelley, a climatologist at the University of California and the study's lead author, told The New York Times that "a drought this severe was two to three times more likely" because of the increased pressure climate change has on the region’s aridity.
Francesco Femia, founder and director of the Center for Climate and Security, said that the newly released study "builds on previous work" on the relation between conflicts and climate change.
“While there is a very complex array of social, economic and political factors that drive conflict, the study reinforces the fact that climate change and natural resource mismanagement are problems that can exacerbate instability in a country, and potentially make conflict more likely.”
“Given continued instability and a forecast of increased drying in the region, this issue should be better integrated into the international security agenda,” Femia said.
The war in Syria has caused an unimaginable humanitarian crisis, and this new study adds more weight to the debate surrounding climate change and armed conflicts. Global warming is clearly already sparking unrest around the world.