From Drought to Disaster? The Debate on the Syrian Conflict and Climate Change

Rasha Akel, Research Affiliate, Institute for Migration Studies

Severe Drought and Displacement 

It is widely acknowledged that Syria and the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe multi-year droughtbefore the 2011 Syrian uprising. Several scientific scholars have attributed this multi-season drought to anthropogenically induced climate change which is caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses. A widely publicized argument about the roots of the Syrian conflict, and its relation to climate change, has been circling in scientific and media circles. The emergent climate change -to- conflict thesis stipulates that the severe drought which ravaged the country from 2007-2010 resulted in severe agricultural and economic losses. The northeast governorate of Hasakah was severely hit, whereby seventy five percent of Syrians experienced total crop failure. Moreover, pastoral groups in this northeastern region lost, on average, around eighty-five percent of their livestock.

These losses in livelihoods contributed to massive rural to urban migration in the form of internal environmental displacement. The resulting population pressures and strains in urban areas contributed to grievances and social unrest which “boiled over into civil uprising”. Most of these internally displaced persons are agricultural workers and family farmers who migrated from rural lands to urban areas and camps on the outskirts of Syria’s major cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, Dara’a, Deir ez-Zour, Hama, and Homs. While such a thesis concerning the link between climate change and the Syrian conflict has gained momentum, and has fused with narratives and warnings securitizing climate change, the extent to which the drought contributed to the Syrian conflict is heavily debated amongst scholars. 

The Skeptics

Opponents of the aforementioned thesis have attacked this argument on several grounds. First, it is argued by De Châtel that the Syrian uprising was triggered by the government’s failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis which was induced by bad governance rather than the drought it predated. These skeptics of the popularized argument claim that the drought should be contextualized within years of mismanagement, unsustainable policy making, and rising poverty in rural areas. Examples of harmful policies implemented by the Syrian government include the cancellation of a number of state subsidies in 2008 and 2009 which adversely affected the agricultural sector by multiplying the price of fertilizer and diesel fuel overnight at a spike of 342% for fuel prices. 

As De Châtel puts it, “for many farmers in the Jezira and elsewhere in the country, this formed a greater burden than the successive years of drought and spurred their decision to abandon their land”. The cancellation of state subsidies was part of a deregulation plan to liberalize the economy, decrease the budget deficit, and progressively transition from a centrally planned economy. Proponents of this side of the debate emphasize that Syria was undergoing dramatic economic transformations before and during the severe drought. These scholars are critical of “drought-centric” models which overstate the scale of the drought induced migration and view the drought as being the main factor propelling people to migrate. According to Selby et al., “other factors, most importantly Syria’s experiment with economic liberalization, were likely more important contexts for and catalysts of migration than drought”. 

Furthermore, De Châtel goes as far to argue that the desertification experienced by Syria is also caused by mismanagement of successive governments as well as the overexploitation of resources rather than being caused by climate change. De Châtel claims that “this rapid desertification can be explained by the massive overgrazing of Syria’s steppe lands following the nationalization of the steppe and the abolishment of tribes in 1958”. The desertification and subsidy cuts enacted in 2009 contributed to rural to urban migration, as farmers and herders abandoned their lands in search for work in cities and southern governorates. These internal migrants settled in tent camps around the peripheries of cities such as Dara’a. The humanitarian crisis (poverty, food insecurity) resulting from the loss of livelihoods was neglected by the government who restricted media coverage and portrayed the country as being a victim of external factors beyond its control. 

Another ground on which opponents of the climate change - to conflict thesis stake their claims is by criticizing the simplified link between climate change and migration. The decision to migrate internally is a complex one which interacts with many variables (economic, political, demographic, social and environmental). Unlike fast onset events (such as floods), it is difficult to determine the extent of the role that the environment played in a migration decision in the case of slow onset environmental degradation (such as drought). Furthermore, one critical scholar has noted that these migrants do not have the required social networks to organize ongoing popular protests, while the popularized argument assumes that they were the protesters and later the combatants. Drawing on social movement and social identity theories, Fröhlich claims that these migrants consisted of an “out group” who did not have the social ties and trust with the residents required to initiate the protests. 

Implications and Conclusion 

There are several risks associated with over-emphasizing the significance of the drought as a contributing factor to the Syrian conflict, especially if such an emphasis is at the expense of political and economic contextual factors. First, De Châtel warns that environmental reductionism shifts attention away from the core issue regarding the harmful policies and the long term mismanagement of natural resources by the government. There is a concern that the  environmental determinism shifts the burden of responsibility for the already existing humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the drought, from successive Syrian governments and enables the Assad regime “to blame external factors for its own failures”. Furthermore, the climate change –to-conflict thesis feeds into politicized narratives which securitize climate change and environmental migrants who are portrayed as “threats” to the stability of destination locations. The politicization of IDPs shifts the conversation from protection and human rights discourses to security concerns. 

It is widely acknowledged that the Syrian conflict was caused by several complex and interrelated factors. However, the extent to which the severe drought experienced by Syria contributed to the conflict is heavily debated by scholars. Rather than easily subscribing to the popularized thesis, I find that the drought should be contextualized alongside other important factors which contributed to grievances and social unrest. We must be cautious with blank arguments, for there are important implications for over emphasizing the role of the drought in the Syrian conflict.