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Climate Change-Fueled Droughts Are About to Make Syria Even More Hellish

Light rainfall has kept Syria's crops from disaster over the winter, but as the dry season approaches, there's trouble ahead.
Photo by Reuters

This article originally appeared on MOTHERBOARD.

In a 2011 study, scientists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined that climate change was at least partly responsible for the more frequent droughts withering the Mediterranean region. Both veteran foreign policy analysts and climate experts have blamed a particularly debilitating spate of those droughts for setting the stage for the violent conflict that would unfold in Syria. Climate change, it can be said, warmed Syria up for war.


“The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone,” Martin Hoerling, Ph.D. of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, said in October of the same year that unrest broke out in the Middle East. Now, the drought is on the verge of returning en force, and it could exacerbate the already considerable suffering of the refugees, victims, and citizens caught in the crossfire of the interminable conflict.

"A drought could put the lives of millions more people at risk," Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), said at a Tuesday briefing on a new report that outlines the incoming threat.

WFP's food security analysts explain that "rainfall since September has been less than half the long-term average, and will have a major impact on the next cereal harvest. There is only one month left in the rainfall season that lasts until mid-May and with three-quarters of the rainfall season gone, it is unlikely that there will be a significant recovery in this agricultural season."

Light rainfall has kept Syria's crops from disaster over the winter, but as the dry season approaches, there's trouble ahead—and it could derail already beleaguered humanitarian aid effort. The WFP says that if rain doesn't come, and soon, catastrophe looms.

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Wheat production is predicted to hit a record low of 1.7 million tons, and livestock are expected to suffer from water shortages. Meanwhile, the badly damaged infrastructure across the nation will make it difficult to transport and conserve the few remaining resources. But how much of this can specifically be attributed to climate change?

A not insignificant amount. As NOAA put it, "Climate change from greenhouse gases explained roughly half the increased dryness of 1902-2010." It is, as the Pentagon's analysts would say, a potent "threat multiplier." Would tragic civil war have broken out in Syria without climate change parching the Mediterranean? It's impossible to tell. Would the ensuing strain have been as disastrous? Definitely not.

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WFP's Syria coordinator, Muhannad Hadi, said in a statement that “Syria suffered from five years of drought right before the conflict broke out and vulnerable communities in affected areas hardly had time to recover before they were hit by the conflict."

The tragic thing is, the drought season is likely to be worse, not better, by the time the conflict is finally resolved. The data are clear—just look at the winter rainfall trend over the last 110 years, as measured by NOAA:

Those two green bars at the end represent a couple of years of decent rain; now, drought is back. And Syrians will have to overcome both the scorching climate and a crippled agriculture sector to feed itself.

“As conflict affects the most productive agricultural sector, low agricultural production levels will become a permanent feature,” the UN's report says. ‘The situation will not change while conflict lasts and its resolution will take considerable time if and when peace is restored to Syria."

Climate change likely fueled some of the unrest that led tyranny, strife, and civil war to decimate Syria. Now it's going to make basic survival for millions of its victims hell, too.