The Syrian Civil War: A Result of Climate Change

by Chloe Rodman

Kelley et al. (2015) writing in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linked the Syrian Civil War to climate change. The Fertile Crescent, more specifically Syria, has experienced a severe prolonged drought since 2006. In a country dominated by agriculture, the drought killed enormous amounts of livestock and crops. To make matters worse, before this dry spell began, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad implemented policies to increase agricultural production, despite a shortage in water. These policies made Syria particularly defenseless when the drought began.

While two-thirds of farms relied on rainfall as their primary water source, the remainder relied on groundwater and irrigation systems from nearby rivers such as the Tigris and the Euphrates. Turkish dams control these rivers but the Turkish government has been generous enough to supply Syria with water during their multiple long-term droughts. These three sources of water are unreliable however. The amount of rainfall on a year-to-year basis is unpredictable and has been decreasing in the winter, groundwater is now scarce due to both the previous agriculture policies as well as the drought, and it is predicted that the rivers in the Fertile Crescent area will continue to dry up. To try to counter the lack of water, a law was passed in 2005 that required well diggers to get a license, but it was not enforced and therefore ineffective.

While Syria has experienced droughts throughout history, they have become more severe recently, with the winter of 2007 and 2008 being the driest in instrumentally recorded history. The lack of groundwater has been one of the main contributors to the severity of the drought because Syria previously relied on it when precipitation was scarce. Satellite data has found that the downward trend in rainfall correlates with shrinking vegetation and groundwater due to a rising surface temperature in the Fertile Crescent area.

These long-term trends of increasing temperature and evaporation as well as the decrease of precipitation line up with the human-caused climate change timeline. Therefore, not only do scientists believe that the severity of these droughts are caused by the increase of greenhouse gases, it is also predicted that with the little counteraction to climate change in progress, the frequency of these severe, long-term droughts will increase.

Since climate is shown to have a large influence on the frequency and severity of the droughts in the Fertile Crescent region, especially Syria, it can be linked to the cause of the Syrian Civil War. Due to the increasing lack of rainfall and groundwater, farms were no longer producing what they once had. In 2003, 25% of Syria’s gross domestic product was from agriculture. Five years later in 2008, it had dropped to 17%. Not only were farmers no longer making a profit, but President Bashar al-Assad also eliminated subsidies on food and fuel, causing even further distress to farming families. Approximately 1.5 million men, women, and starving children were forced to move from rural farm areas to the outskirts of urban centers. This shift in population, paralleled with 1.5 million Iraqi war refugees migrating into Syria, created a ghastly result. The increase from 8.9 million people in 2002 to 13.8 million people in 2010 put a huge strain on resources and caused high rates of unemployment, overcrowding, and crime in cities. Assad’s government ignored the situation and, paired with the severity of the drought, the situation turned into national chaos.

Kelley, C., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015) Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought.


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