Environmental and Political Factors Combine to Exacerbate Syrian Drought that Underpins Unrest

by Caroline Hays

Major climate events have social and political ramifications beyond their environmental impacts. In a recent study, Kelley et al. (2015) examine the extent of the drought in Syria that began in the winter of 2006/2007 and consider how it impacted the country socially and politically. The authors find that, although Syria has experienced several multiyear (three or more) droughts in the last 80 years, the most recent drought is the most extreme on record. Additionally, the authors note that three of the four most severe droughts recorded in Syria have taken place in the last 25 years. They connect the dots between anthropogenic climate effects, drought, agricultural collapse, and mass human migration, presenting a more comprehensive picture of a major climate event than is often shown.

From a climate perspective, the authors find that two long term trends made Syria especially prone to extreme drought at the beginning of the 21st century. First, there has been 13% decrease in winter rainfall since 1931. Second, annual surface temperatures have significantly increased, with temperature rise outpacing global temperature rise during the 20th century. This effect has been especially pronounced in the last 20 years. These trends, combined with natural variation, have created a severe drought. The authors use these trends, as well as evidence from other climate models, to hypothesize that the most recent drought was made more severe by anthropogenic influences. They also estimate that severe droughts, such as the most recent one, are two to three times more likely to occur than without anthropogenic impacts on climate.

The authors also discuss a number of social and political factors that made Syria especially vulnerable to drought in the early 2000s. First, policies encouraging agricultural intensification despite water scarcity led to the depletion of groundwater. Second, between 1.2 and 1.5 Iraqi refugees arrived in Syria between 2003 and 2007. As the drought took hold, food production fell and prices rose, and Syrians who had relied on agricultural livelihoods migrated towards metropolitan areas already crowded with refugees. The authors conclude that these political factors, along with environmental trends furthered by anthropogenic climate influence, led to a more severe drought in Syria that contributed to unrest.

Kelleya, C., Mohtadib , S., Canec , M., Seagerc , R., Kushnirc, Y., 2015. Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. PNAS. 112: 11, 3241-3246.



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