Could global warming have played a role in instigating the ongoing, and bloody, war that has been going on in Syria for nearly two years, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 70,000 and a million Syrians forced to flee from their homes, thousands to other countries?
“Unprecedented food price rises” were “fundamental triggers” for the Arab Spring, writes Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed in the†Guardian. A 2008 global rice shortage led to a steep rise in prices, setting off food riots in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Indeed, just before the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, record high prices for dairy, meat, sugar and cereals were reported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The FAO predicts possible price increases this year due to limited grain stocks after 2012′s adverse weather (the heat wave that baked most of the U.S., ongoing droughts on Russia and Africa, floods in Pakistan). At the same time as the world’s population is growing and is predicted to keep doing so, food production around the world has been declining, with rice yields having fallen 10 to 20 percent in the past decade.
Climate Change and Social Instability
The current conflict in Syria illustrates how climate change can cause societal, civil and even political unrest, say the co-founders of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security, Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia, in an article on†Grist. A recent series of essays (pdf) by the Center argues that the “Arab Spring is a textbook example of the link between climate change and social instability.”
A number of studies have shown that recent drought conditions occurring in coastal Mediterranean regions and in the Middle East are “directly related” to climate change. Droughts, floods and fluctuations in rainfall can “exacerbate other threats to national or international security” as variations in water availability affect people’s ability to grow food, with repercussions for energy production and a region’s infrastructure.
As Femia points out, prior to the start of protests in the southern agricultural region of Dera’a in 2011, Syria had been going through an “unprecedented drought.” Mismanagement of natural resources under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad had already spurred a “mass exodus” of Syrians — many from agricultural areas — into urban centers. In fact, the U.N. has estimated that 800,000 Syrians saw the complete loss of their livelihoods due to the drought.
International security analysts had judged Syria to be a “generally stable country” that was actually “immune to social unrest and immune to the Arab Spring,” says Femia. The mass urban-to-rural migrations can be seen as one of a number of “stresses underneath the surface” that contributed to the current unrest in Syria. Other factors include economic issues in the cities themselves, some stemming from the arrival of refugees from Iraq after the U.S. invasion.
Did Climate Change Cause the End of an Ancient Empire?
A recent†study of the fall of the ancient Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia (in the northeastern region of present-day Syria) more than 4,000 years ago offers a parallel to the situation in present-day Syria. Around 2200 B.C.E., archaeologists say that a drought led to people migrating to urban centers, to the government collapsing and to the eventual destruction of the powerful Akkadian empire. It’s a series of events closely recalling that of contemporary events in the region. Farmers in today’s Syria still rely heavily on rainfall for their livelihood just as their forebears in ancient Mesopotamia did.
The archaeologists base these conclusions on artifacts found in the region. While many tools dating back to before 2200 B.C.E. were made from obsidian from quarries far away in eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey), tools found after 2200 B.C.E. are only from two local sources. These findings suggest that trade had been severely disrupted after the empire collapsed, leading to an economic crisis.
Werrell and Femia emphasize that climate change is only one of many factors behind civil instability. But populations and certainly governments must be educated about this and sustainable water and energy infrastructures developed. The bloody conflict and the desperate humanitarian situation in Syria offer chilling testimony of what can happen if we overlook, or ignore, such a link.
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