“People who think about political stability or state fragility weren’t really taking environmental issues seriously and that’s a bigger problem.”

The current Syrian crisis is very rarely mentioned in relation to the environment and climate change but The Center for Climate Change and Security, a think tank based in the United States, has drawn a direct correlation between the country’s civil war and its steadily declining water supply. The organisation began investigating this correlation in 2011 when they were alarmed to find that Syria had experienced worst drought in the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East which curves from the Persian Gulf to northern Egypt.

“From 2006 to 2011, about five years, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts in its history of record,” says Francesco Femia, co-director of the think tank.

According to The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (2011):

“Drought is the most complex of all natural hazards as it affects more people than any other hazard.”

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, described this impact in Syria as the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation”. The report said that as many as four million Syrians have left the country since the conflict started in 2011.

Mismanagement of climate change issues

Simplistically, a drought is the consequence of a natural decrease of precipitation (low rainfall) over an amount of time due to high temperature, wind and humidity. It is relevant to keep in mind that droughts occur in most parts of the world, however, it occurs more so in the Middle East. In Syria the problem was compounded further by resource mismanagement by the Assad regime.

According to Francesco, government mismanagement of water caused the infertility of arable land, desertification due to overgrazing, and lack of irrigation techniques. These issues affected the livelihoods of an estimated 1.5 to 2 million farmers and herders who lived in rural areas and were solely dependent on their crops and livestock.

A recent Global Assessment Report (GAR) conducted in 2015 backed up this correlation by attributing the main economic loses in Syria to extreme climate conditions, such as 6.7% drought and 38.2% of frost that left rural areas incapable of sustaining growth.

Citizens who originally occupied rural areas were forced to move to urban environments such as Damascus. The vast influx of people migrating towards these areas caused a massive decline of food, water and security leaving 7 million Syrians internally displaced according to the UNHCR.

Francesco explained that the Syrian population essentially realised that they could confront their government with the general dissatisfaction of the state, as demonstrated in other Arab countries like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011 and this led to civil war and the current crises.

The Centre for Climate Change and Security created in 2011 today has an advisory board of one hundred and nineteen national security experts.  Francesco explained how they investigate “climate change on the prospective of national security”, which includes human and international security too. Their overall aim is to set the agenda in terms of research and policy development.

“The problem was that information on the ground was not reaching the decision makers at the right level. People who think about political stability or state fragility weren’t really taking environmental issues seriously and that’s a bigger problem.”

A global problem

Francesco stressed that this lack of prioritisation for the long-term effects of climate change was not just a Syrian issue.

“I believe the international community could have been more aware as well and trying to figure out ways of ensuring that these kind of fragilities were dealt with.”

Francesco indicated that international communities and local governments worldwide seem to share a lack of consciousness toward what climate change can cause and are unable to view it as an issue that can affect any country.

“It’s really a global problem … we have to avoid the mistake of just saying: ‘Ok, these are very fragile places, these are only going to be the places that are going to be vulnerable for climate change. There are places we didn’t think about and Syria was [such a] case.”

During our discussion he emphasised that there are numerous other places that “are facing an exponential decline,” for example, Iran. He mentioned how when one thinks of Iran most people immediately relate it to their nuclear problem, “but there are some vulnerabilities under the surface we should also be looking at”.

For instance, Lake Urmia (located near Iran’s Border with Turkey) was recently mentioned in an article published by the Guardian, detailing how it has dried up drastically since the seventies due to heat waves and a decline of precipitation. This drastic change is also driving people out of the area – similar to what was seen in Syria.

Looking ahead

The climatic issue of Syria has now been imbedded in history because the consequences of this forced change are manifesting in the political landscape. Slowly, one of the root causes of the conflict has begun seeping into the mainstream media. Last week Prince Charles, who has been a climate change campaigner for 40 years, shared his concerns about how the Syrian conflict has deep-rooted environmental causes. He, too, holds the belief that the civil war and the refugee crisis could have been avoided and possibly tackled at an earlier stage if the international community paid attention to the environmental issues behind the conflict.

However, Francesco stressed that the focus should not stay on what was done wrong but should instead look to other problem areas and towards avoiding similar security disruptions as a result of climate change.

“Yes, things could have been done differently but we should look at the future now and say, are there other examples that are similar that we can help prepare.”