Environment and War

April/May 2017 VOL 15 No. 2

Larry Olson, PhD.


It is easy to imagine the environmental devastation that can result from war.  Destruction of infrastructure for water, sewer and solid waste, loss of agricultural productivity, deforestation and loss of habitat, and mass displacement of populations are just some of the direct environmental impacts that we can point to over the last few decades in specific countries.  But what about the opposite?  Can shortsighted environmental policies actually result in a war?

The most devastating current conflict is the Syrian war.  More than a quarter million Syrians have been killed since the war started in March 2011, more than 11 million have been forced from their homes, and 5 million have fled the country.  The Syrian refugee crisis has resonated around the world and has affected elections, policies, and long standing alliances in countries far removed from its borders.  It started with pro-democracy demonstrations following the Arab Spring in 2010, but has morphed into sectarian violence pitting the majority Sunni population vs the Shia Alawite sect of the ruling Bashar al-Assad party and a proxy war involving Russia, Iran, and Western countries.  In the midst of this turmoil ISIS has flourished and become a worldwide threat.

No one claims that the Syrian war was caused by just bad environmental policy.  But a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Colin P. Kelley, et al (2015), PNAS, 112 (11), 3241) argues that human caused climate change and an unsustainable government policy designed to increase agricultural productivity contributed greatly to the circumstances that precipitated Syria's civil war. 

Starting in the winter of 2006/7, Syria and the area of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent experienced an historic 3 year drought – the greatest in the instrumental record.  This drought followed closely upon a major 1990s multi-year drought and the authors argue that "the anthropogenic precipitation signal has already begun to emerge from the natural noise and that the recent drought had a significant anthropogenic component."

But even if you doubt the Syrian drought resulted from human caused climate change, there is no question that the impact of the drought was exacerbated by a policy which started under President Hafez al-Assad (the father of current President Bashar al-Assad). In trying to coax more yield out of land that has been farmed for 12,000 years and gain support from his rural constituency, Assad instituted land redistribution, provided low interest loans for construction of wells and heavy subsidies for diesel fuels.  But this changed the way agriculture had been practiced for millennia.

In the 1950s almost all agriculture in Syria that was not near major rivers was rain fed.  The only wells were shallow and hand dug.  Water was drawn manually and used only for domestic purposes.  Groundwater was replenished with rainfall and the aquifer levels were stable.  The introduction of diesel pumps in the 1960s and widespread access to electricity in the 1970s led to thousands of new and much deeper wells and greatly increased pumping rates.  Irrigated lands dependent upon groundwater increased from 652,000 ha in 1985 to 1.4 million ha in 2005 (F. de Châtel, "Mining the deep", Syria Today, pp-48-51, January 2010).  Farmers were able to greatly increase their yields and make more money, but the massive over pumping dried up shallow wells and springs, and even caused the disappearance of the Khabour River in summer.  In the hardest hit areas, groundwater levels dropped 50-100 meters between 1950 and 2000.  Even in the face of evidence that groundwater resources were limited, the government continued to encourage groundwater dependent irrigation throughout the 1980s and 90s.  In some areas, total water withdrawals reached 160% of renewable rates. Finally, in 2005 a new law was passed that required new wells to be licensed and improved irrigation techniques to be utilized.  But the law was poorly enforced and had little impact.

This was the situation in 2006 when Syria's depleted groundwater resources made it unable to withstand a prolonged drought.  The agricultural system in northeastern Syria, where 2/3 of Syria's agricultural output was located, essentially collapsed and small sized farmers and herders couldn't survive.  More than 1.5 million rural Syrians migrated to urban areas.  But they ended up in poorly organized areas, many of which were illegal settlements on the outskirts of cities that had already absorbed an estimated 1.2-1.5 million Iraqis who had fled their country between 2003 and 2007.  Crime, unemployment, and poverty were rampant, schools and infrastructure non-existent, and the massive population shifts made these areas particularly vulnerable to civil unrest.  Syria's urban population was 8.9 million in 2002 but 13.8 million at the end of 2010.  The total population had grown from 4 million in 1950 to 22 million and now food was scarce, prices had doubled, and Assad had cut food subsidies even as the drought continued.

Syria's vulnerability to drought was greater than its neighbors Turkey and Iraq, in part due to climatic conditions but also due to government policies that promoted an unsustainable land use policy.  The volatile mix of a collapsed agricultural system, massive population displacement and an unresponsive government contributed to making an initial brushfire of civil disobedience explode into the worst humanitarian crisis of this century. 

September 2018 Vol 16 No. 9