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How climate change, drought, migration caused Syrian civil war

Putting much emphasis on climate overlooks role of political and socio-economic factors

Lina Eklund & Darcy Thompson | The Conversation 

People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria. File Photo: Reuters
People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria. File Photo: Reuters

The has raged for more than six years now. You’ve probably heard the following story linking it to change: an intense drought, made more likely thanks to global warming, caused “mass migration” within the country from rural to urban areas, which in turn contributed to the 2011 uprising which then escalated into civil

This narrative assumes that there is a relationship between drought, and However, the connection is not so clear-cut. Our worry is that putting too much emphasis on the overlooks the role of political and socio-economic factors in determining a community’s vulnerability to environmental stress. is not inevitable in the face of

That’s one conclusion from our work on drought and resource management in Syria. In our research, we broke down the popular “war” claim into two parts – the link between and migration, and the link between and – to see if and how these factors fit together.

We started with the very idea of environmentally induced The problem is that it’s very difficult to determine the actual reasons why people leave home and look for opportunities elsewhere – a changing environment is likely to be only one among several factors and not necessarily the most significant. For instance, having the capital to move is a major factor for migration, so only those who can afford to move in response to are able to.

In the case of Syria, there has been no scientifically proven link between reduced rainfall or failed crops, and rural-urban The evidence that has been used to prove the drought-link comes from displacement reports published by the Syrian government and UN assessment missions. The two phenomena are claimed to be linked because they coincided in time. Scientifically, however, this is not enough.

Green fields in western Syria, before the civil war started. Jakob Fischer / shutterstock

The which affected has been described as a severe, multi-year drought that lasted between 2006 and 2010. But rainfall levels in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 were close to normal, both in Syria as a whole and in the northeastern “bread basket” region. This suggests that only 2008 was a real year.

Only 2008 was a true drought year. CHIRPS 2.0, Author provided

A can be devastating for one community but barely noticed in another. Just look at the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which was affected by the same dry period as but without any mass flows at the time. A community’s vulnerability to drought is more important than the itself.

Various factors meant Syrian farmers were particularly vulnerable to An overuse of water to nourish thirsty crops such as cotton had left the land dry and degraded. The government had also cancelled subsidies for fuel used to power irrigation pumps and to take produce to market – and it had dismantled a micro-finance network that had served as an income security net. A national drought strategy that had been approved in 2006 was not implemented once the rains dried up.

From to conflict

The second stage of the Syrian narrative is that causes violent While some research does suggest a connection, there is also evidence suggesting no strong link at all.

By simply looking at flows past and present, we can see that violent is rare. In fact, may actually strengthen social and economic conditions in receiving communities in the developing world. While urban migration does not cause development per se, sustained economic development does not occur without it.

Religious, social and ethnic integration may also improve as contact with one another increases. However, can also promote conflict, through increased competition for resources and services, and tensions due to ethnic and demographic changes. The potential for conflict in a given urban space is mitigated by factors such as the destination area’s ability to absorb migrants, the permanency of people’s migration, and whether there is already social and/or political instability.

In the case of Syria, there was a mass exodus of farming families from the worst drought-affected areas in the north of the country (the agricultural bread basket of Syria) to the nearby cities of Damascus, Hama and Aleppo. However, what role this played in helping to fuel the uprisings and then the is far from clear.

The initial protests broke out in the city of Daraa, in the south-east of the country, in response to the arrests and mistreatment of a group of youths allegedly caught painting anti-government graffiti. What started as a provincial uprising spread to other parts of the country where deep-seated socio-political dissatisfaction had been simmering for years.

How climate change, drought, migration caused Syrian civil war

What this sequence of events highlights is that the is a culmination of several interconnected factors that had been steadily developing over decades. While drought, and may all be linked by association, such links are not established facts and, in the case of Syria, they are difficult to gauge.

The ConversationWhat can be said with much greater certainty is that economic struggles stemming from vulnerability, the loss of subsidies and the loss of agricultural wages did contribute to widespread dissatisfaction with the government. And it was this dissatisfaction which served as a rallying cry to unite people in opposition.


Lina Eklund, Post Doctoral Researcher in Physical Geography/Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and Darcy Thompson, PhD Candidate, Political Science/Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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