Exploiting global warming
For Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, the only thing to fear about climate change is fear itself. Perhaps taking his words to heart, the four major US TV networks cut their already minimal coverage of climate issues to a combined total of just two-and-a-half hours for all of 2015.
So it should come as little surprise that few media bothered to cover a frightening new report this month by Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute, which concluded that searing temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa could render much of the region uninhabitable by the end of this century and create a ‘climate exodus’ that dwarfs today’s mass migration of refugees from the area.
But we don’t have to wait decades to see the explosive impact of climate change on the Middle East. For the past decade, scientists, humanitarian workers and US diplomats have watched as devastating heat and drought disrupted Syria, causing hunger, unemployment, internal migration and civil unrest.
Aggravated by government mistakes and foreign intervention, those ills helped trigger the tragic violence that has killed nearly half a million Syrians and displaced more than half its population.
As a study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences declared, “Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria… the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.”
Thanks to documents released by Wikileaks, we know that none of this came as any surprise to Washington.
In August 2006, the US embassy in Damascus reported that Syria faced a “water crunch” that could “balloon into a crisis in the medium to long term”. Instead of helping the country overcome this looming crisis, however, the embassy began drafting recommendations for ways to destabilise Syria’s government – ranging from fomenting sectarian disputes to fanning rumours of coup plots within the country’s security services. By 2009, predictions of a crisis had come true.
The business publication Trade Arabia called it “one of Syria’s largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920”. One of the prime destinations for Syria’s dispossessed families was the hard-hit town of Dara’a, near the Jordanian border. It would become the epicentre of Syria’s 2011 unrest.
The Syrian government admitted that the scope of the disaster far exceeded its capacity to respond. It appealed to the UN for aid – hoping that Washington would reconsider its refusal to contribute humanitarian assistance.
The embassy recommended offering some aid in light of the growing crisis. By January 2010, the embassy was citing estimates by the UN World Food Programme that 1.3 million Syrians had been affected by the drought and 800,000 were “in dire need of assistance.” UN experts begged the United States to contribute aid to prevent a worsening disaster. But American supporters of regime change argued for continuing to withhold aid.
In October 2010, just half a year before anti-regime demonstrations erupted in the crowded town of Dara’a, the New York Times reported from Syria that “after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent… appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say.
Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria.”
The story legitimately blamed poor government planning and misguided irrigation investments for compounding the problem. But Syria had no monopoly on inept water management, as drought-stricken California amply proves. Such criticisms also give too little weight to the regime’s substantive (and sometimes unpopular) reforms, including reduced fuel and food subsidies, a law to restrict groundwater depletion from the digging of new wells, and promotion of drip irrigation.
Many critics also ignored the fact that Syria was losing precious water as Turkey diverted flows from the Euphrates River. And Syria had never recovered from its loss of water from the Golan Heights and Sea of Galilee after Israel occupied those lands in 1967.
In any case, few governments could have coped with what one expert called “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilisations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago”. Compounding the drought and the effects of internal migration was the enormous economic and social stress caused by the more than 1.2 million Iraqi refugees who sought safe haven in Syria after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As last year’s study published by the National Academy of Sciences observed, “The population shock to Syria’s urban areas further increased the strain on its resources. The rapidly growing urban peripheries of Syria, marked by illegal settlements, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime, were neglected by the Assad government and became the heart of the developing unrest.”
The escalation from unrest to all-out war doubtless owed more to politics than climate change. But Syria’s social and government institutions, weakened by years of national hardship and privation, were by 2011 easy targets for foreign powers and domestic extremists bent on toppling the Assad regime.
The current crisis may be only a taste of what’s to come as rising temperatures and dwindling water supplies make life even more desperate in the region.
The implications are serious not only for the Middle East and North Africa, but for Europe, which already faces extreme political pressure from the influx of migrants and refugees.
Washington must also stand ready to help even inept or unfriendly governments – like Assad’s in Syria – cope with the immense social and economic stresses that millions of their citizens are today suffering as the planet warms. As Syria’s tragedy illustrates, taking advantage of regimes weakened by environmental catastrophes to coerce political changes is a recipe for humanitarian disaster and endless violence.