What Does Climate Change Have to Do with Syria?

By Christina B. Farnsworth | 9/12/2013

Everyone is talking about what is they think is happening in Syria, but few have delved into the root of the why. William Polk argues that a perfect storm of drought, crop failure and livestock death led to extremes of hunger and poverty and war in Syria -- a microcosm of desperation sparked by climate change that could serve as a macrocosm warning and parable.


William Polk’s article in The Atlantic magazine, Your Labor Day Syria Reader: Part 2, describes “a perfect storm.” James Fallows, who wrote the article’s introduction, writes that readers short on time and unable to read all 13 of the Q & A that Polk so clearly writes about with regard to Syria, can focus on “#6, about the under-publicized role of drought, crop failure, and climate change in Syria's predicament.” Polk is a former state-department staffer; his is a must read article complete with maps and charts.

“Syria,” Polk writes, “is and has always been a complex society, composed of clusters of ancient colonies.” He describes the societal complexities. Then he writes, “Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new wells. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.”

The result was that much of Syria became hungry and very poor. Many areas saw the end of agriculture. Three-quarters of crops failed and as much as 85 percent of livestock died. People fled to cities with no jobs. People were and are desperate. Polk explains more in detail.

Is it any wonder that what has happened in Syria has happened? But there is a larger picture to consider. Syria may be the microcosm for the macrocosm, a warning parable for the global future. Phil Donohue, substituting for Bill Moyer on Moyer’s PBS program this week, interviewed Deborah Amos, who focused on the pressures of 120,000 Syrian refugees, housed in a single camp, are having on the natural resources in adjacent Jordan. The camp is above Jordan’s aquifer, which means there is danger of pollution. Waste must be trucked out. There are no wells, so water must be trucked in.

Environmentalists fear that wide-spread, global droughts will lead to agricultural failure and livestock die off everywhere. Potable water, they feel, will be the new gold. Almost everywhere wells have been drilled, the wells have had to be re-drilled deeper as water tables fall. Even in our U.S. deserts, Las Vegas was originally named for its luxurious meadows now dried up. In Tucson, original Spanish settlers dug wells that were only 30 feet deep. Steam boats traveled the rivers. Population and drought have combined to stress water resources. Now the rivers are mostly dry, the remaining wells very deep and much of the potable water comes from the over-subscribed Colorado River via the CAP canal. In Paso Robles, Calif., conflict is fermenting between vineyards and homeowners with suddenly dry wells, both of whom depend on limited water in face of drought.

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