Northeastern Syria used to be one of the most productive agricultural regions in the Middle East. From 2006–2010, however, the area endured one of the most devastating droughts in recorded weather history. Water scarcity caused crop failures and increasing food prices. Mostly subsisting on small-scale family-run farms, the traditional population was unable to cope with these problems. Yet, the people were left to their own devices as the autocratic government had hardly taken any precautions and offered no suitable disaster response and contingency plan.
In science such situations are associated with a lack of resilience. This particular case exemplifies the inability to adapt to climatic and economic change. Due to the drought 1.5 million peasants and livestock breeders lost their livelihoods and migrated to less affected regions of the country. Numerous refugee families have settled in southern Syria for now. In March 2011, the first voices against the regime of Syria’s president Baschar al Assad were raised there. These protests grew into a full-blown civil war that continues today. A large number of northern migrants have thus been fleeing further towards Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon—this time as war refugees.
As a peace researcher for the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP I aim to find out what factors geared these Syrian migration waves; in particular if and to what extent environmental refugees participated in protest activities. The results may explain why climate change and its impacts should generally be assessed as driving forces behind conflicts. In 2014, I spent four weeks in Jordanian refugee camps and interviewed thirty Syrian families, some comprising up to thirty-five individuals. Among other things, I inquired whether water supplies and crops underwent changes during the drought years and how this influenced the families’ decision to flee. Moreover, I asked if environmental refugees dared to engage directly in the uprising. Accordingly, facing a major predicament and experiencing tremendous anxiety, the refugees did not protest themselves. Nonetheless, recurrent drought periods combined with a severe lack of political support have fuelled social unrest.
Many Syrian refugees are planning to return to their native land and resume farming as soon as the rioting ends. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns against climate change ramifications in the Middle East. Although drought periods have always formed part of the local climate, observations prove that Mideastern winters have been significantly drier in the past twenty years than in the eighty years before. Researchers expect precipitation in northern Syria to decline by a further twenty percent, and the mean temperature to increase by four degrees centigrade until the end of the century.
Resources and an improved infrastructure are necessary to effect successful returns of Syrian smallholders to their homes. Efficient water use and alternative sources of income would help returnees adapt to climate change. One thing is certain: Whoever will reign in Syria after the war will also have to tackle the repercussions of global change.
Author: Dr. Christiane Fröhlich
- News from climate science: All articles at a glance
- Research group C4: Climate Change, Security Risks, and Violent Conflicts
- Publication: Security and discourse: the Israeli–Palestinian water conflict