Climate Change and the Syrian Uprising
A drought unparalleled in recent Syrian history lasted from 2006 to 2010 and led to an unprecedented mass migration of 1.5 million people from farms to urban centers.
Because the Assad regime’s economic policies had largely ignored water issues and sustainable agriculture, the drought destroyed many farming communities and placed great strain on urban populations.
Although not the leading cause of the Syrian rebellion, the drought-induced migration from farm to city clearly contributed to the uprising and serves as a warning of the potential impact of climate change on political stability.
Two days short of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, Al Jazeera published an article, headlined “A Kingdom of Silence,” that contended an uprising was unlikely in Syria. The article cited the country’s “popular president, dreaded security forces, and religious diversity” as reasons that the regime of Bashar al-Assad would not be challenged, despite the chaos and leadership changes already wrought by the so-called Arab Spring. Less than one month later, security forces arrested a group of schoolchildren in the Syrian city of Dara’a, the country’s southern agricultural hub, for scrawling anti-government slogans on city walls. Subsequent protests illustrated the chasm between the regime’s public image — encapsulated in the slogan “Unity, Freedom and Socialism” — and a reality of widespread public disillusion with Assad and his economic policies.
Among the many historical, political, and economic factors contributing to the Syrian uprising, one has been devastating to Syria, yet remains largely unnoticed by the outside world. That factor is the complex and subtle, yet powerful role that climate change has played in affecting the stability and longevity of the state.
The land now encompassed by Syria is widely credited as being the place where humans first experimented with agriculture and cattle herding, some 12,000 years ago. Today, the World Bank predicts the area will experience alarming effects of climate change, with the annual precipitation level shifting toward a permanently drier condition, increasing the severity and frequency of drought.
From 1900 until 2005, there were six droughts of significance in Syria; the average monthly level of winter precipitation during these dry periods was approximately one-third of normal. All but one of these droughts lasted only one season; the exception lasted two. Farming communities were thus able to withstand dry periods by falling back on government subsidies and secondary water resources. This most recent, the seventh drought, however, lasted from 2006 to 2010, an astounding four seasons — a true anomaly in the past century. Furthermore, the average level of precipitation in these four years was the lowest of any drought-ridden period in the last century.