The conflict in Syria and the rise of Isis have displaced half a nation of people and generated the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today. Some 8.7 million people are now suffering food insecurity, and the country’s agricultural infrastructure has largely been destroyed. Yet while ideological, political and religious differences are clearly major causes in the conflict, what often gets overlooked is the impact of climate change and agricultural policies in generating a social and ecological disaster that may have contributed to the country’s political breakdown and bitter war.
Television images give the impression that Syria’s land is little more than parched and dusty soil, and increasingly that has become the case. Yet pre-conflict Syria was seen as a ‘middle-income’ country and played an increasingly prominent role in the global food market, with a strong agricultural sector producing key crops such as wheat, barley, cotton and olives.
During a conversation with Stephen Starr, who has lived in Syria and written extensively on the conflict, he shared his view that drought and consequent food shortages were the single most important factors in setting off the revolt in 2011.
Syria suffered four consecutive years of drought starting in 2006, with 2007-2008 being the worst in 40 years. Herders lost up to 85% of their livestock and small-scale farmers could not produce enough to feed their families. By 2010 a UN official warned that drought had pushed up to 3 million people into extreme poverty. Mass migration to urban areas sparked public unrest due to greatly increased competition for jobs and resources with other Syrians and with refugees from Palestine and Iraq.
Evan Fraser and Sylvain Charlebois, professors at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute, have commented that, “Throughout history, agricultural problems have acted as catalysts that trigger widespread social and humanitarian crises.” The French revolution, for example, occurred when El Niño caused harvest failures, triggering mass rural-to-urban migration. In Syria, the drought and its impact on agriculture destabilised the country, with people flooding into cities that lacked the infrastructure to cope and where corruption and inequality became commonplace.
Climate change has been blamed for the severe droughts in Syria, and there is a growing consensus that this contributed to the initial conflict. Last year the Prince of Wales spoke out about the accumulating effect of climate change, which he says is leading to social upheaval and conflict over scarce resources in places like Syria.
According to Francesco Femia of the Center for Climate and Security, “We can’t say climate change caused the civil war. But we can say that there were some very harsh climatic conditions that led to instability.” For more, please see full article at sustainablefoodtrust.org.