Syria, Drought and Global Warming

I will argue that it was not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising, feeding a discontent that had long been simmering in rural areas.” Francesca De Châtel, Middle East Studies, Jan. 2014.

That’s what I will argue too. There is an argument going on about whether anthropogenic climate change is impacting the current climate. Alarmists have been insisting that any extreme weather event includes an ACC component. Opponents have been citing numbers showing that case cannot be made for storms. Members of the Consensus have been using droughts and floods as counter examples. However, there is the familiar double jump required to reach the same conclusion as held by the alarmists–first, the simple one, that this particular drought was a contributing factor in the Syrian civil war, which is not too hard to swallow. The second is that climate change either caused or intensified or lengthened this particular drought.

An article dated March 9 in the Guardian also questions the new fashion for blaming all conflict on climate change. “Humans have fought over resources for millennia, so recent studies indicating a link between severe drought and the civil war in Syria shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. That said, some researchers warn we might be jumping to conclusions a bit too quickly.”

The money quote comes from Andrew Solow, senior scientist at the Wood Hollow Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. “I’ll put this in a crude way: no amount of climate change is going to cause civil violence in the state where I live (Massachusetts), or in Sweden or many other places around the world,” Solow says. “If we want to reduce the level of violence in other places, then it would be more efficient to focus on these factors: to bring people out of abject poverty, to provide them with the technology that loosens the connection between climate and survival, to reduce corruption, and so forth, rather than on preventing climate change. I sometimes have the feeling that some people only care about human suffering if it can be traced to climate change.”

A 2012 article in Nature (Sheffield et al,) is in fact titled, “Little Change In Global Drought Over Past 60 Years.”  It opens with the sentence “Drought is expected to increase in frequency and severity in the future as a result of climate change, mainly as a consequence of decreases in regional precipitation but also because of increasing evaporation driven by global warming.” However, the purpose of the paper is to note that corrections should be made to estimates drawn from the Palmer Drought Severity Index for technical reasons, and that when those corrections are applied there in fact appears to be no upward rising trend in drought.

This paper was quickly replied to by the Honor Guard of the Consensus Brigade, including Kevin Trenberth, Phil Jones and Keith Briffa, in a paper that is sadly paywalled but titled “Global Warming and Changes in Drought.” Since Kevin Trenberth is one of the most prominent advocates of the thesis that climate change is now a component of all weather, it is safe to surmise that the paper does not agree with Sheffield et al.

Syria is in the middle of both drought and armed conflict and members of the climate consensus have linked the two, saying that the drought is a contributor to the conflict. There’s some logic to this–the drought started before the civil war and farmers did move into the cities as a result. This could have resulted in additional tension that triggered the civil war.

However, one would have to be blind or monomoniacal at least to say that global warming had more than a trace effect on what happened in Syrai. And in fact Peter Gleick, the climate consensus’ resident thief and forger, is one of the prominent advocates of blaming the civil war on climate change.

In a paper titled “Water, Drought, Climate Change and Conflict in Syria“, published in the journal Weather, Climate and Society, Gleick tips his hat at other causes in the abstract, saying “The devastating civil war that began in Syria in March 2011 is the result of complex interrelated factors. The focus of the conflict is regime change, but the triggers include a broad set of religious and sociopolitical factors, the erosion of the economic health of the country, a wave of political reform sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Levant region, and challenges associated with climate variability and change and the availability and use of freshwater.”

However, Gleick goes on to note “water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions.” In an article in Huffington Post published to publicized the paywalled paper, Gleick writes “Many factors influenced the civil war in Syria, including long-standing political, religious, and ideological disputes; economic dislocations from both global and regional factors; and the consequences of water shortages influenced by drought, ineffective watershed management, and the growing influence of climate variability and change.”

If you want to add the current drought as one of the factors contributing to the current conflict, I would shrug my shoulders and concede it as a possibility, although orders of magnitude less important than discontent with the regime, the examples of the Arab Spring in other countries, the doubling of the Syrian population from 12 to 24 million in just 25 years, etc. Sure, the drought didn’t help.

But Syrians have suffered a reduced capability to deal with drought. Turkey has built dams syphoning off water that Syria used to have access to. As I mentioned, the population has doubled. A drought of the same intensity as previous droughts would have a greater effect on Syrians.

But Gleick’s paper is about climate change. In Huffington Post Gleick continues, “Assessing the role of climatic changes in altering water availability finds growing evidence that drought frequency and intensity in the Levant/Eastern Mediterranean region have changed from historical climatic norms.”

And this is where Gleick departs from what I consider reality. In 1870-1871 the ‘Levant/Eastern Mediterranean’ he describes suffered from a drought so severe that there was actually zero precipitation for two years. In 2200 BC the region experienced 300 years of arid climate. The Middle East is the poster child for drought–deforestation and overgrazing are the staple topics of scientists discussing environmental degradation leading to arid landscapes prone to drought, and Syria is a prominent example of both.

The 1999-2001 drought was the worst in four decades, seriously affecting crop and livestock production in the Syrian Arab Republic, which, in turn, had serious repercussions on the food security of a large segment of the population as incomes fell sharply, particularly among the rural small farmers and herders (FAO, 2004a; ESCWA, 2005). For example, in 1999, drought played a role in forcing approximately 47,000 nomadic households (329,000 people) to liquidate their livestock assets, which was a primary source of long-term income (De Pauw, 2005). Therefore, many families in the rangelands (Badia) eventually required food aid during the drought years (FAO, 2004a).

And yet, this severe drought did not lead to civil war or mass migration.

As Francesca de Chatel writes, ” I will argue that it was not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising, feeding a discontent that had long been simmering in rural areas. Drought forms an integral part of Syria’s (semi-)arid climate and is not an exceptional phenomenon. Syria has experienced 7 severe (Type 2) droughts since 1978 without civil conflict–and the number and severity of droughts in that period is not unusual.

Countries in the region such as Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine were also affected by drought in 2007/8, but only Syria experienced a humanitarian crisis, with large-scale migration of populations and widespread malnutrition.

I will argue that this can be explained by the fact that the humanitarian crisis in fact predated the drought. Similarly, climate change per se – to the extent that its predicted effects would already be visible – did not drive Syrians into the street in protest; it was the Syrian government’s failure to adapt to changing environmental, economic and social realities. While climate change may have contributed to worsening the effects of the drought, overstating its importance is an unhelpful distraction that diverts attention away from the core problem: the long-term mismanagement of natural resources.”

The Middle East is prone to drought. And yet it has thrived for thousands of years, including drought years, because people adapted to conditions, combining pastoralism with agriculture and staying flexible about where they pitched their tents and built their houses. The Middle East has suffered terrible shocks in the last millenium–repeated invasions from Crusaders, Turks and Central Asian invaders had a devastating effect on populations–and some of those invasions occurred during times of drought. Some weren’t. The climate was secondary in importance.

“The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ Near East Region comprises 32 countries in Central and Western Asia and Northern Africa.  The Near East Region is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world, with a regional annual average of 1,700 cubic meters (m3 ) of water available per person in 2005 (FAO, 2007). This compares to the worldwide average of 8,411 m3 per person. However, the amounts in the region varied from a low of 8 m3 per person in Kuwait to as much as 7,134 m3 in Kazakhstan in 2005.

Precipitation plays a major role in the availability of water in many of the countries; accumulations range from as little as 51 mm/yr in Egypt to 691 mm/yr in Tajikistan in the more water-rich eastern portion of the Near East Region. In terms of climate, most of the region is classified as a hot, arid desert according to the Koppen-Geiger climate classification scheme (Kottek et al., 2006).

There are four different types of drought:

Meteorological drought refers to a deficiency of precipitation, as compared to average conditions, over an extended period of time.

Agricultural drought is defined by a reduction in soil moisture availability below the optimal level required by a crop during each different growth stage, resulting in impaired growth and reduced yields.

Hydrological drought results when precipitation deficiencies begin to reduce the availability of natural and artificial surface and subsurface water resources. It occurs when there is substantial deficit in surface runoff below normal conditions or when there is a depletion of ground water recharge.

Socio-economic drought occurs when human activities are affected by reduced precipitation and related water availability. This form of drought associates human activities with elements of meteorological, agricultural, and hydrological drought.

Drought and famine have also been recurrent features in West Asian countries, such as Iran. Heydari (2005) synthesized several studies that had collected accounts of ancient droughts in the works of historians, geographers, travelers, foreign diplomats, traders, and other writers. According to researchers, some of the earliest writings are from the Accamedian King Darius’ scroll (522-485 B.C.), in which he prays for protection over Persia from three things: enemies, drought, and lies.

Tabari’s History also later records that Persia was stricken by a severe drought and famine for seven consecutive years during the reign of King Firouz, which caused water sources to dry up, vegetation to wither, animals to perish, and the king to suspend all taxes and levies when the River Tigris dried out. Beihaghi’s History also recounts famine in 1032 A.D. when “rainfall abstained in most of the settled quarter, a dire famine came, and a universal cholera infected every soil”. Famine was said to be so severe in Khorasan that the survivors were unable to bury all of the dead.

Heydari (2005) goes on to describe a long chronology of famines in regions of Persia. For example, in Isfahan, numerous famines were recorded throughout history, including: 1051, 1192, 1350, 1668, 1708, 1722, 1723, and 1752. At the national level, the 1871-72 drought resulted in a famine that is claimed to be the deadliest disaster in the last two centuries. The famine took the lives of more than 1.5 million people across Iran. Most of the subsequent famines in 1885, 1899, 1900, 1903, 1906-7, and 1918 were also reportedly caused by drought and caused great social hardships for the people in the region.”

In 2012 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report called “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.” They take drought seriously–the word ‘drought’ occurs 717 times in the report.

In it they write “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events. Changes in extremes can be linked to changes in the mean, variance, or shape of probability distributions, or all of these. Some climate extremes (e.g., droughts) may be the result of an accumulation of weather or climate events that are not extreme when considered independently.”

They continue, “Global-scale trends in a specific extreme may be either more reliable (e.g., for temperature extremes) or less reliable (e.g., for droughts) than some regional-scale trends, depending on the geographical uniformity of the trends in the specific extreme. ”

Later they write, “There is medium confidence that some regions of the world have experienced more intense and longer droughts, in particular in southern Europe and West Africa, but in some regions droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter, for example, in central North America and northwestern Australia.”

“There is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st century in some seasons and areas, due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration. This applies to regions including southern Europe and the Mediterranean region, central Europe, central North America, Central America and Mexico, northeast Brazil, and southern Africa. Elsewhere there is overall low confidence because of inconsistent projections of drought changes (dependent both on model and dryness index). Definitional issues, lack of observational data, and the inability of models to include all the factors that influence droughts preclude stronger confidence than medium in drought projections.”

Syria is not observed to have experienced more intense or longer droughts. It is among the regions where stronger droughts are expected.

Syria’s problems stem from autocratic and opporessive government, the example of the Arab Spring that showed the possibility of political change, a doubling of population, the withdrawal of water from Turkey and ongoing religious tension.

Was drought a factor? Maybe at the margins. Was this drought caused by or intensified by climate change? It is impossible to say. Syria has had many droughts that were worse than the current one. It has had many droughts that lasted longer than the current one. Anyone who insists that anthropogenic climate change is a major factor in the Syrian civil war is using a different instrument to measure it.




7 responses to “Syria, Drought and Global Warming

  1. The mistake- grown to deception- of the climate obsessed is to ignore history. The very name, “climate change” is actually meaningless in this context any way. Climate is not a weather event. But weather events compose climate. That means any view of climate must be historical.
    Ignoring the history of the area is to ignore the climate of the area.

  2. “There is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st century in some seasons and areas, due to reduced precipitation”

    Thank you Captain Obvious.

    It is obvious that droughts and floods move around in a somewhat chaotic process that make the above statement trivially true. What is the counter argument? That droughts and flood will maintain the exact current distribution and intensity across all regions? When has that ever happened?

    What kind of drives me crazy is all these trendy retro-analyses that now attempt to link a specific extreme event to climate change. If these studies could actually do what they claim, this implies these models must also have predictive power (how else could they analyze increased probabilities of the past).

    1. How many other areas did these same models give false positives or false negatives in the same time frame as the event studied?

    2. Where are the most likely areas to experience future extreme events?

    This is where the hand waving starts. It is well known that regional predictions are very poor for climate models. We are expected to accept that they can determine climate change’s impacts on very recent past events but have no capability to tell us the same thing for the very near future.

    When they can reliably predict near term event probabilities, I will start to believe their assessments of very recent past probabilities.

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