Syria, migrants and mitigation

In a discussion at another [place] the hot issue of the migrant crisis and the role of climate in starting the Syrian unrest emerged. I got to wondering what the present state of the climate is in Syria, and how that impacts on the chances that the millions of people displaced will, or can, ever return.


But first I want to look at the claim that climate had a lot to do with the Syrian civil war, and is a factor in the migration of people from the Horn of Africa and the middle east.

The basic argument is made  in an article in which researchers from Columbia University and the University of California Santa Barbara trace the effects of Syria’s drought from the collapse of farming, to the migration of 1.5 million farmers to the cities, and then to poverty and civil unrest. Study Links Violence in Syria to Climate Change-Driven Drought
However as this article is at –The Blaze- the outlet for Glen Beck’s views on the world, the response from the regular readers there is not very positive! Glen Beck for those unfamiliar with the US media personality is a right-wing shock-jock, with a line in conspiracy theories and imminent apocalypse. It is rather amusing to see that he is at odds with his usual audience at the present because he has not whole-heartedly supported the rise of Trump as the GOP presidential candidate.

The objections raised to the idea that climate change could be a significant factor in the Syrian conflict, and the wider diaspora of people from the region are few and far between in the comments at ‘The Blaze’, and some are based on the assertion that there is NO global warming beyond a little normal and natural variation.

However the preceding multi-year drought in the mid 2000s is well documented, and the implications it had for social stability were well known before the unrest began. [This] article from 2010 discusses the impact of the ongoing drought, with the slight improvement in rainfall the previous year, and government efforts to increase food production having only a limited impact on the severity of the problems faced by the agricultural sector and the population in general. It was written around 6 months before the early protests began, and about a year before it became a civil war.

This is from September 2010.

“Schutter said four consecutive droughts had affected Syria since 2006, with the drought in 2007-2008 being particularly devastating. “The losses from these repeated droughts have been significant for the population in the northeastern part of the country, particularly in Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and Al-Raqqa.”
Small-scale farmers have been worst affected. Many farmers have not been able to cultivate enough food or earn enough money to feed their families. Herders have also lost 80-85 percent of their livestock since 2005, according to UN figures.
Thousands have left northeastern areas and live in informal settlements or camps close to Damascus. Experts warn, off the record, that the true figure of those living in “extreme poverty” could be higher than the 2-3 million estimate. ”

Syria is a country with a thin strip of cultivation in the coastal region and along the Northern border with Turkey. Irrigation schemes also allow some agricultural in the Euphrates river valley, but this is plagued with problems that the water it gets is intercepted by Turkey, and it risks a dispute with Iran if it intercepts too much of the river flow. As a result the major dam and irrigation schemes have been less than successful as the lake is rarely more than half full.Syria_agriculture1

Most of the agricultural land is rain irrigated, if the winter rains fail there is no crop. In the 1980 the Syrian government did try to expand irrigation storage systems that would avoid the dependence on the amount of annual rainfall, but however good an rain collection and storage/distribution system you build, a multi-year drought will defeat it.Syria_crops1

Separating the Arab Spring as a political movement from the material hardships of drought and the collapse of the agricultural sector of the economy is probably impossible and unrealistic. The two are linked, the prospect of starvation is a powerful way to raise political consciousness, even in a Nation that uses the authoritarian model of violent oppression of dissent.

So it seems clear that the multi-year drought and political contingencies combined to generate the unrest and conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the wider region. The situation in Syria is particularly well discussed in this article –Drought, Corruption, and War: Syria’s Agricultural Crisis

In the ‘good’ years before the drought the Syrian government irrigation schemes were just about managing to increase food production to keep pace with the growing population. However as the growing of corn and wheat in the North is still largely dependent on rainfall, any failure of the rains halfs the yearly production, requiring massive food imports.

This produces a very pessimistic assessment of how the mass migration from Syria is likely to resolve. Return by any significant numbers to the country appears unlikely. The drought destroyed the livelihoods of small tenant farmers (which predominate after land reform in the 80s). The civil war has caused serious damage and degradation of the irrigation schemes that can make agricultural production at least a little independent of the yearly winter rains. It would seem unlikely that the country could sustain the population it had a mere decade ago. The swarm of refugees arriving in Northern Europe are not going back any time soon.

I have seen in the UK media grudging admissions that migrant from Syria ARE refugees, in other words they have a recognised ‘right’ to flee from war and oppression, and other nations have a duty to provide help. (At least a moral duty?)
However some have claimed that once they have stepped over the border into Turkey or wherever, they should  NOT be allowed to be refugees  because now they are out of the conflict zone. This ignores the need of refugees for food, work and shelter. Starving in a tented camp half a klick over the Syrian border is little improvement on starving in Syria. It is inevitable that refugees will need to migrate until they can find a place where they can obtain food and shelter, and work and education. The idea they should stop moving the moment they are ‘safe’ across a border is ridiculously unrealistic.

It has been particulary difficult to find up-to-date information on the climate in Syria recently. perhaps it is understandable that weather observations have been disrupted. I suspect ISIS do not put much value on this Infidel science of climate, or care. However there is some information around about the current state of affairs, and it is not good. Last years winter rains, 2014-2015 were the lowest on record, possibly. The satellite imagery of vegetation shows very poor crop growth. Without a civil war the nation would be in dire straits providing food for its population. Even with a complete resolution of the political conflict, (not a likely prospect with ISIs/Kurds/Shia in contention) the agricultural infrastructure that could support a large population has been destroyed. Massive food imports will be required, but it is difficult to see any way the country could support a large population living to a reasonable standard of living.Syria_nightlights1

So the rest of Europe is stuck with the migrants. It is unlikely that the EU will follow the Australian model, intercept the refugees and prevent them from entering Europe by incarcerating them on a remote island. Building a ‘Trump’ wall to keep them out also looks ridiculous, and any option for return would seem to be many decades away even with the most optomistic of political viewpoints.

It is over thirty years since the prospect of future climate change was identified as a threat to the stability of this region as poor governence, population growth and drought/weather extremes were predicted to combine into a dangerously destabilising mix.
Climate, Drought, and ISIS
Instead we have the spectacle of governments making short term reactive responses, with no apparent awareness that this inundation is a mere trickle that bodes of a much greater flood of displaced people from ongoing and future climate change impacting the agricultural ecology of many Nations in Africa, around the mediterranean and across through Asia. Then there is the impact of drought in central America, from Brazil to California.

There is some concern that the Paris conference on climate change may not do enough to mitigate the effects of AGW. While the connection between AGW and increased political instability and mass migration is beginning to be recognised. The European Migrant Crisis Is A Nightmare. The Climate Crisis Will Make It Worse. I will make a prediction. The immediate political impacts of mass migration will be seen as a much more significant political issue, and will engender a greater amount of international political response, than the underlying causitive factor of climate change. In fact I predict that Climate change will be relegated to a ‘smaller’ long term problem compared with the immediate threat of refugees from the affected regions.

Migration will displace and dominate mitigation.


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