ANDREW GLIKSON. Climate change, droughts and wars: is there a nexus?15/01/2018
According to Al Gore during 2006 and 2010 some 60 percent of farms in Syria were destroyed and abandoned and some 80 percent of the livestock were killed during the most severe drought parts of the Middle East ever recorded[i]. Subsequently more than a million Syrians migrated into cities, along with refugees from the Iraq War, setting the stage for a civil war. Beginning with the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations in Syria in January 2011 and a brutal crackdown by the regime, the conflict escalated since July 2011, killing over 450,000 and displacing more than 12 million Syrians[ii]. More than 4.8 million Syrians left the country.
Whether a nexus can be made between the drought and the Syrian war is complicated. A study investigating the drought, using satellite based vegetation, precipitation and land cover data, indicates the drought affected parts of Iraq and Turkey as well[iii]. A chart displaying annual rainfall in Syria during 1981-2015[iv] shows marked decline in rainfall during in 1999 and 2009, and relatively lesser declines during 2011-2016. During this period overuse of water for cotton farming, collapse of infrastructure and cut in government farm support constituted significant factors.
The connection between the drought and the political conflict and war is less than clear, since the role of political and socio-economic factors need to be taken into account. This includes the animosity between rival clans and sects, occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State, and foreign interference including supply of weapons and vehicles to rival factions, rendering the Syrian conflict a proxy war.
In summary, the Syrian drought resulted in migration from the country to the cities and untold misery, while the triggers for armed conflict were superposed on these developments.
Drought, famine and wars are rife in Yemen[v] and large parts of Africa, including Somalia[vi] and south Sudan[vii] and Nigeria. Parts of Africa face their worst drought in almost 70 years, with significant risks of starvation leading to mass deaths as warned by the United Nations refugee agency[viii]. Three countries – Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan stand on the brink of a humanitarian crisis brought about by drought and famine. The numbers, released by the UNHCR, are staggering: 20 million people live in areas where harvests have failed and malnutrition rates are increasing, particularly among young children. One million people are now on the brink of famine and disease, notably cholera. The UN agency blamed a combination of war, political instability and environmental factors including climate change, at the same time as countries have been cutting aid[ix]
It is not the starving millions in Africa and elsewhere who are triggering wars, financed and launched by well-fed people in control of large resources, who are able to send mercenary fighters, weapons, vehicles and aircraft to the killing fields of the Middle East and Africa, as well as those who are turning a blind eye to these tragedies.
Larger-scale starvation is awaiting the tens and hundreds of millions-large populations who live in delta areas only few meters above rising sea levels in southern and southeast Asia, including Bangla-Desh, the Mekong and Hindus deltas. A metre rise in sea level would submerge almost 20 percent of the country and displace more than 30 million people, while the rise by 2100 could be significantly more[x]. Mekong River Commission scientists warn that if the sea level continues to rise at its projected rate of around one meter by the end of the century, nearly 40% of the delta will be wiped out[xi].
‘Global warming is a crime against humanity’ Lawrence Torcello[xii]
Andrew Glikson, Earth and paleoclimate scientist, Australian National University