Between Drought and Damnation: Callous Climate Policy Causing Civil Conflict

Between Drought and Damnation: Callous Climate Policy Causing Civil Conflict

Society | May 18, 2017 / by Saloni Rao
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While the situation in Syria continues to escalate, it brings into question the actual factors that led to the civil rebellion in the area, and eventually, the brutal civil war that rages on, even today. From the perspective of environmental security, it is important to analyse climate change as an ingredient in the brew of events that ultimately sparked the uprising. This environmental distress and its subsequent mismanagement can be used as an example of how governments must b environmentally responsible when it comes to policy-making, not only to ensure the satisfaction of the people but also to maintain peace in an increasingly volatile international political environment. To put forward this argument, the example I will be using is that of the five-year drought that preceded the uprising, and how its blatant mismanagement exacerbated the resulting war. That being said, I do not attempt to claim that this was the sole cause of the Syrian conflict, but rather, move to emphasize the importance of environmental security in future politics. First, it is important to understand the socio-economic impact of the drought, and the relevant climate policies of the Syrian government. Using this, I will further analyse the necessity for climate-sensitive policies so that such situations may be avoided.


Displacement and Disenfranchisement - The Affected Majority

To understand the frustration with the government that led to such insurrection, we must establish that the people’s anger towards the Assad government stemmed from the complete apathy towards the individuals in the way the government managed the drought. The country has three main sources of water - the Euphrates River, rainfall and the underground aquifers. Syria’s location in the Middle-East makes it a naturally drought-prone area; in fact, in the period between 1961 and 2009 the country experienced a total of almost 25 years of drought. Though the actual incidence of drought did not increase, the perceived rate was much higher due to the inefficient policies of the government, the growing pressure of urban overpopulation, and the depletion of groundwater reserves. According to Damascus-based expert, Francesca de Châtel, in 2009, farmers complained of an increase in hot sandstorms that “burnt” their crops, caused by desertification of the steppes in Eastern Syria. This was not due to any natural causes. It arose from the abolishment of tribes and nationalization of the steppes in 1958, which fuelled overgrazing and destroyed the regenerative qualities of the native vegetation of the area. This example demonstrates how the mismanagement of resources and incompetent climate-related policies led to unrest among the people. The North-East received less than half of the long-term average in rainfall, and the governorates of Hassakeh, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa registered shortfalls of 66 per cent, 60 per cent and 45 per cent respectively.

According to UN and IFRC reports, 800,000 Syrians lost their livelihoods by the year 2009 because of the drought. The number of people driven into ‘extreme poverty’ because of the droughts stood at two to three million inhabitants, according to another UN report by Olivier De Schutter. A total of one million people also fell prey to ‘food insecurity’ accompanied by a 75 percent rate of crop failure, and loss of livestock by more than 80 percent of herders in the North-East of the country. This led to an exodus of farmers, herders and other agriculturally dependent families from the rural areas, and about 50,000 families migrated to urban areas just in the year 2010. This figure is over and above the people who had already relocated to the cities over the years. The city of Aleppo alone had around 200,000 migrants from the surrounding agricultural villages, seeking refuge from the uninhabitable conditions. The Syrian cities, which were already trying to manage the massive influx of Iraqi refugees since the U.S invaded in 2003, began to feel the pressure.

The problematic policies of the Assad government which were detrimental to the people’s quality of life pervaded Syria’s economic sphere as well. The drought had devastating consequences on the national level of agricultural production, with the wheat harvest coming in at 2.1 million tons, as compared to the long-term average of 3.7 million tons. This forced Syria to import wheat for the first time in 15 years. Water resources also dropped by half between 2002 and 2008, from both wastage and overuse. Upriver dam projects by Turkey on the Euphrates became added burden on the country, intensifying the water-shortage in the country.


Persistently Evasive Policy

On the topic of the acute water shortage and the ensuing civil unrest, the Syrian government refused to acknowledge the problem areas. They used short-term analytics of years in which the country had relatively abundant production, and announced substantial subsidies for farming of wheat and cotton, both of which are water-intensive crops. In the late 20th century, the country also spent 15 billion dollars on misguided irrigation projects which had the minimal outcome. Farmers attempted to escape the drought-like situation by turning to the nation’s groundwater resources and tapped aquifers. The number of wells and bore wells that tapped these resources was documented at 213,000 in 2007, which is double of what it was in 1999. 70 per cent of the ancient aqueducts have now dried up post the drought. There was a lot of corruption in the government surrounding the water shortage, and the incidence of illegally tapped wells increased all over the country. Beyond this, the government nationalized the steppes, which led to overgrazing and ultimately, desertification of the area, thereby hindering the already precarious rainfall pattern. The people’s excessive dependency on groundwater resources took a hit when diesel subsidies were drastically reduced; they couldn't any longer afford to pay for the fuel that sustained their pumps. The government showed apathy in their response, not only ignoring the need for corrective policy but also proclaiming that Syria would never fall prey to protests and revolts that the rest of the Arab Spring countries were undergoing.

Therefore, it was the desperate need for water, supplemented by the political elite of the country who capitalised on this scarcity, which incited the people’s anger against the government. The one million odd refugees that had entered the urban areas from Iraq, as well as the masses of people who were continually entering Syrian cities seeking asylum from the unliveable rural areas, put a burden on the urban areas. At this point, 60-70 percent of the villages in the North-East were deserted, and the asylum-seekers were living in makeshift migrant camps in the areas around Aleppo and Damascus. The camps lacked basic facilities, like water and sanitation.

The country launched two drought appeals in affiliation with UN agencies, but neither bore much fruit due to the government’s internal denial of the severity of the situation and received only 20-30 percent of relief funds requested. The government did not follow up on any aid plans for the displaced population, and even “encouraged” migrants to return to their drought-stricken lands in the North, with shallow promises of food aid and cash handouts. Even after this, the government repeatedly attempted to downplay the drought and shifted the blame to situations beyond its control.

Political scientist Marwan Kabalan writes about the reality of the system in reference to the drought, which is rigid, inefficient and corrupt, and enables exploitation of both land and water resources. These policies spawned the disenfranchisement that the rural communities now have with the government. Widespread censorship also exists in the case of water scarcity, and the Syrian government has remained silent on the actual figures of drought and groundwater depletion in the country. It has also failed to enforce laws to ensure that unchecked tapping of groundwater resources does not take place.


A Chain-Reaction of Awareness

The people were well aware of their government’s reluctance to take charge and solve problems in the sphere of water scarcity. Dara’a, a farming town in the drought area, was the nucleus of protests in the early stages of the opposition against the Assad government and had received little official assistance. The suppression of these resistance movements spurred on more protests. Lack of employment and scarce resources, even in the urban areas of the country, emerged from the large-scale rural-urban migration. The 15 young boys imprisoned in Dara’a kick-started the protests that became an opposition to the corruption and autocracy of the government. Since Dara’a was hit by the drought as well, it too harboured resentment towards the Syrian government because of their inadequate and incompetent policies. The people were growing increasingly restless, and with the other political and economic factors that came into play, the protests took an ugly turn, and followed suit of the other Arab Spring countries, finally turning into a full-blown civil war. The external agents were able to use the people’s discontent to turn them against their government and trigger the opposition and dissent.


After the Drought, Before the Damnation - How Climate-Sensitive Policies Avert Civil Disaster

A study in 2009 discovered that the consequences of temperature rise in Sub-Saharan Africa could be linked to the likelihood of civil war in the region. In another 2011 study, climate change prompted the increase in food prices and thereby led to the ensuing civil war that occurred in Egypt. This is a strong implication that if the natural resources of a country are not handled well, it can lead to instability of the government and subsequent instability of the region’s internal security.

In order to understand the link between climate change and civil unrest, we must first address the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. As humans, we depend on the resources our environment provides us for sustenance and development. If these resources are neglected by a government, which must have a greater awareness for the welfare of the people, they will end up depleted and destroyed. Often, the nexus that exists between them may be hazy, especially in modern times, but when the damage is done, the people are first to get affected. This leads to famine, poor living conditions and abject poverty, such as it did in Syria.

Therefore, by using the above example of how incapable climate-related policies can fuel the beginnings of civil war, it is crucial to emphasize that it is important for governments to take adequate measures to protect the environment and maintain the natural ecological balance of the country. The refusal to acknowledge the importance of climate-sensitive policies hinders the country’s growth and development, but beyond this, puts the country at risk from the standpoint of stability. Strong internal stability is imperative to maintain external security, as a vulnerable country can easily be manipulated. Rather than pure economic growth, sustainable development must be looked at as an alternative to approaching policy-making, and natural disasters must be immediately checked in order to minimize any long-term consequences.

Natural disasters affect agriculture in the country, which consequently affects the food prices as well as the livelihood of the people in the country that are dependent on agriculture. This leads to general disgruntlement towards the government, and ultimately into rebellion, in some cases. Environmental protection is important for the country in the long run, since it ensures the growth of future generations. If resources were all depleted in the current generation, the country would lose its potential to increase growth, and would thereby expose itself to possible criticism and rebellion against this sort of system. Most countries do not realise this fundamental need to consider environmental security. They overlook the connection between climate change and the support of the people because of the complicated nature of the link between the two. Countries must not only acknowledge this link but take active measures to prevent this exposure to instability.




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Written By Saloni Rao

If I knew myself better, I would tell you.

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