How Drought Brought War to Syria

The Syrian Civil War has had crippling effects around the world. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes, millions more are now refugees seeking asylum in other countries, hundreds of thousands of people are dead and the Islamic State is thriving. The consequences of the war are no secret, but over five years since the outbreak of the war, the reasons for its start are still unclear.

To try and explain this, I picture a scale. In a scale, every object that is added tips the balance one way or another. More objects are added carefully, to ensure that the scale doesn’t tip. But should an object be added that is too heavy, the entire scale tips.  For me, the tipping object in the Syrian Civil War is the environment.

Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian Civil war in 2011, the Arab uprisings crept across the Middle East and North Africa, with civilian-led revolutions leading to regime collapse and widespread change. This of course, is a major factor that led to the start of the Syrian civil war. The Bashar al-Assad regime denied the people basic freedoms and stifled democracy, leading Syrian civilians to follow in the footsteps of their brothers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rise up in dissent against the government. But I would argue that while politics is a key factor in the dissatisfaction of the people, it is not the grievance that tipped the scale for the Syrian people. A serious grievance and one that could partially explain the revolution is an environmental one.

Between 2007 and 2010, Syria was hit by a severe drought. The drought was one of the most severe in Syria’s history, triggering a mass exodus of 1.5 million farmers to urban cities in search of food and employment. Before the outbreak of the war, 30 percent of Syria’s workforce was engaged in the agricultural secotr, which constituted 40% of Syria’s GDP. The drought crippled this industry, severely harming the livelihood of so many Syrians. This left people hungry, angry and unemployed which exacerbated the existing grievances felt by the population and contributed to the eruption of the civil war.

For you North Americans out there, this sounds pretty similar to the Dust Bowl, a period during the 1930s, of severe dust storms which led to drought and crippled the agricultural industries in Canada and the United States. There too, the disaster led to the displacement of many families, and left over 500 000 Americans homeless and caused a dramatic uptick in violence.

While it is clear that the Syrian civil war erupted due to an amalgamation of various factors, it is still incredibly important to internalize the security concerns that can come as a result of climate change. It is an issue that cannot not be ignored and one whose resolution will require international cooperation. On the 22nd of April, 2016, the Paris agreement was signed by 193 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) including China and the United States, the world’s biggest polluters.  With the recent election of Donald Trump, who denies that climate change exists, the fate of the Paris agreement, and of the environment is at stake. This could have serious security implications around the world, should more regions be impacted by climate change as severe as Syria has. It is imperative that the world act now, before it’s too late.