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Drought helped cause Syria’s war. Will climate change bring more like it?

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell are co-founders of the D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security, a think tank focused on the interactions between climate change and security issues. In recent years, they've published a number of reports looking at the environmental roots of both the Arab Spring and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Brad Plumer: There are obviously a whole slew of reasons why civil war erupted in Syria. But you've argued that a severe drought and water shortages were a much-neglected factor. Explain how water fits in.

Francesco Femia: We looked at the period between 2006 and 2011 that preceded the outbreak of the revolt that started in Daraa. During that time, up to 60 percent of Syria's land experienced one of the worst long-term droughts in modern history.

This drought — combined with the mismanagement of natural resources by [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, who subsidized water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton farming and promoted bad irrigation techniques — led to significant devastation. According to updated numbers, the drought displaced 1.5 million people within Syria.

We found it very interesting that right up to the day before the revolt began in Daraa, many international security analysts were essentially predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring. They concluded it was generally a stable country. What they had missed was that a massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely.

Around 75 percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas — urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. But this massive displacement mostly wasn't reported. So it wasn't factoring into various security analyses. People assumed Syria was relatively stable compared to Egypt.

BP: To be clear here, you're not saying drought caused the conflict. But these environmental stresses were an overlooked factor in creating unrest?

FF: The conflict is ongoing, so it's hard right now to study the dynamics in Syria and look at exactly how population movements might have put pressure on the economic and social dynamics in various areas. So we're not making any claim to causality here. We can't say climate change caused the civil war. But we can say that there were some very harsh climatic conditions that led to instability.

BP: Okay, but how does global warming fit in here? Droughts are fairly common in the region, after all. Couldn't this just be an ordinary dry spell?

FF: We found this interesting, and hadn't seen it mentioned in the security literature. In 2011 [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] released a report showing that a prolonged period of drying in the Mediterranean and the Middle East was linked to climate change. It was in line with previous projections. And on their map, Syria was colored bright red, meaning it had experienced the worst drying in the region. That really told us we needed to look at these dynamics.

BP: You also published a collection of papers looking at environmental and climate-related factors that may have contributed to the 2011 revolts across the Arab world. What were the big climate drivers there?

FF: We looked at a number of different dynamics. Troy Sternberg, Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo looked at the impacts of climate change in Ukraine and Russia and how droughts in those parts of the world in 2010 may have contributed to a wheat shortage. That, in turn, led China to purchase a lot of wheat on the global food market [which led to spikes in the price of food worldwide].

Again, they don't claim that the price spikes caused the revolution in Egypt or Tunisia. But they do look at how those prices spikes led to parallel bread protests in Egypt in particular. The point here is that the proximate cause of the protests that led to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak's downfall may have been the response to the earlier Tunisian revolt. But the broader appeal of that movement in rural areas may have been partly due to the fact that bread prices were high. The Egyptian government tried to use subsidies to keep the price of bread down, but that didn't affect rural areas.

So food prices may have played a role in broadening the appeal of the protests, but we would say it was one factor.

Caitlin Werrell: A lot of the research we've done basically concludes by calling for more research, so that we can see how these correlations can be fleshed out better. Sternberg calls it the "globalization of hazards." A drought or wildfire that was exacerbated by climate change can have drastic impact thousands of miles away.

FF: And we should note that the top nine countries in terms of wheat imports per capita are in the Middle East and North Africa. So anything that affects prices could affect these countries. But more research needs to be done to disentangle climate as a factor.

BP: That's a problem I've come across in reporting on how global warming might influence human conflicts. Plenty of studies say that climate and environmental stresses can be a factor, but they're rarely the most important factor. The U.S. Midwest saw a record drought in 2012 — but that didn't end in a bloody civil war. Turkey has had drought. So how do you disentangle these factors?

FF: Essentially, you need 20 years of PhD candidates doing research into the area and trying to isolate the various variables at play. So it will take some time to get to a greater level of certainty here and find a statistically significant impact on social unrest. It would be hubris to say that we can precisely disentangle those factors right now, particularly in Syria, where there's an ongoing conflict, or in Egypt where there's a great level of instability. It's hard to study.

What we would say in Syria’s case is that a number of analysts both inside governments and out governments missed the boat in their assessment's of Syria's stability. Those assessments were largely focused on what the grievances were in urban areas, on the history of instability in terms of sectarian and religious differences. What was conspicuously absent from those analyses was environmental security and food security variables and climate factors.

CW: If you look at various intelligence assessments, even when they do include variables such as access to water or food, they often say we have to think more about the weight we give these factors. Often water might just be one of 20 factors, and it might need to be more significant than that. Or because they rely on future projections, there's a tendency to exclude these issues.

FF: Right, we find water and food security are often treated as soft issues in the security community. But in Syria we were looking at observable links between drought and climate change. We didn't have to rely on projections.

BP: So let's talk about the future. There are all sorts of predictions that global warming will lead to drought or heat waves that hurt agriculture. And it's a bit tricky because many models still have trouble pinning down precise regional impacts. But which of these things should security analysts pay attention to?

CW: A lot of the way we approach climate change as a risk is to say it’s a "threat multiplier." The way it combines with water or food can take an existing conflict and make it worse, or take a stable situation and make it worse.

One example we find is if you look at Egypt, at the Nile Delta, the projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that they'll see at least 59 cm of sea-level rise by 2100. Not only does that create a problem with flooding in urban areas, but there's also the problem of saltwater intrusion in fresh aquifers. About 34 percent of agricultural production occurs in that area. A lot of focus in Egypt right now is how to get a more stable government, but if you want to look at how to build a stable government, you'll need to be looking at issues like sea-level rise.

FF: One area where the intelligence community has taken notice is water. There was a recent assessment by the National Intelligence Council that looked out 30 years and mentioned climate change quite often. In some places you get too much water, in others too little, you get unpredictable flows as monsoon seasons and drought seasons change. So that's something the intelligence community will have to take into account when thinking about fragile states.

There was a recent report from the International Food Policy Research Institute for Syria projecting that at current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, yields of rain-fed crops may decline between 29 percent to 57 percent between now and 2050. That’s something we'll have to take into account.

BP: What would it actually mean for the security community to take climate change into account?

FF: I think that involves committing political will and resources to the issue that are commensurate with the threat. Right now the United States puts significant amounts of resources, with bipartisan support, into combating the risk of nuclear weapons and the proliferation of fissile materials. When the intelligence community or the Department of Defense in its quadrennial review look at climate change, they rank it quite highly as an issue. But it doesn't receive the same amount of resources and attention in terms of political will.

So what would that mean? First we'd be moving forward with mitigation [i.e., trying to slow the pace of climate change]. But the United States would also be doing more to help vulnerable nations adapt, to build resilient infrastructure — things like better infrastructure for disease.

BP: What would climate-proofing Syria's infrastructure have looked at?

FF: In general we would say the Assad regime was promoting and subsidizing water-intensive agriculture that contributed to desertification and certainly exacerbated the drought problem. So, first, they could have not done that. They could have subsidized agriculture production that was less water-intensive and accounted for climate and drought projections that we already knew about, though we don't even know if they were aware of those projections. We do know that in 2008 Syria was asking for assistance on this issue.

CW: But I'd also add, you can’t go back in time and say if Syria had taken care of drought better, they would have avoided the civil war. Because climate change is only one factor. Syria still would have had problems with democracy, with human rights abuses, with existing politics. But in general addressing these issues is going to be an important part of natural security.

BP: Are there any other regions we should be keeping an eye on in the future as places where climate change could contribute to unrest or conflict?

FF: I’d point to the Asia-Pacific region. The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Locklear, said in a Boston Globe interview in March that climate change was the biggest long-term security threat there. There’s a massive population movement to coastal areas and many of those coastal regions are vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather. That's certainly a huge problem in terms of what could happen as a result of those vulnerabilities.

There are also more traditional security issues. The South China Sea is a traditional choke point for shipping. But now the warming ocean is changing the dynamics of fishing in that area. So beyond the food security issues, it’s also a disputed area. And climate change could exacerbate that. There was a recent report from the Center for a New American Security looking at how the movement of fisheries could lead to disputes between China and Vietnam.

CW: I'd also want to point out here, in addition to the potential for unprecedented risks, there's also the opportunity to increase engagement.

BP: There's research showing that states rarely go to war over water, for instance — they're more likely to cooperate. Isn't that a possibility here? Climate change could lead to increased cooperation rather than more war?

FF: Exactly. it can lead to opportunities. In the past, water insecurity has often led to cooperation between nations, so that’s a possible good sign for the future.

But what we would say is that some of the changes climate change could bring are likely to be unprecedented, so in many ways looking at history is going to be limited in terms of how informative that can be. In 20 years, we might be looking at situations that are so extreme they could lead to security breakdown. So we need to be proactive in creating the institutions necessary for cooperation — to ensure we don’t have conflict in the future.

Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Further reading:

—  David Arnold offered another detailed look at how drought fostered conflict in Syria.

— Will global warming lead to more war? It's not that simple.

— Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.