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How Syria’s Gross Mismanagement of Water is Critical Factor Leading to Civil War

Summary:
Drought, food insecurity, migration, social unrest and Assad's indifference fuel conflict Dr. Leif Rosenberger, Chief Economist, ACERTAS Introduction On 14 March 2011 international security analysts were predicting that Syria was stable and immune from Arab Spring. [1] The next day the Syrian civil war erupted and has been going strong ever since then. What went wrong? What did the “realists” miss? [2] In thinking about the Syrian civil war and whether it could have been avoided, many scholars tend to look at ideological, religious or political factors as the major reasons for the war. That’s not enough. What was Overlooked? What is often overlooked is the Syrian government’s gross mismanagement of its natural resources as an underlying root cause of the Syrian uprising in March of

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Drought, food insecurity, migration, social unrest and Assad's indifference fuel conflict

Dr. Leif Rosenberger, Chief Economist, ACERTAS

Introduction

On 14 March 2011 international security analysts were predicting that Syria was stable and immune from Arab Spring. [1] The next day the Syrian civil war erupted and has been going strong ever since then. What went wrong? What did the “realists” miss? [2] In thinking about the Syrian civil war and whether it could have been avoided, many scholars tend to look at ideological, religious or political factors as the major reasons for the war. That’s not enough.

What was Overlooked?

What is often overlooked is the Syrian government’s gross mismanagement of its natural resources as an underlying root cause of the Syrian uprising in March of 2011.[3]

A Privileged Few

Where should be begin? Well, for starters, Syrian agricultural planners grew wheat and cotton which used way too much water in a dry climate. Second, instead of using sprinklers or drip irrigation they used flood irrigation which wasted water for a privileged few while using way too little water for most of the Syrian people. That meant no social inclusion or shared prosperity. Half of all Syrian irrigation came from groundwater systems which were over-pumped. That in turn led to ground water levels dropping.[4]

Water Depletion Stories

In fact, estimates said that 78% of all groundwater withdrawals in Syria were unsustainable. [5]

Syria was thus rapidly depleting its non-renewable water resources. By 2007 Syria was withdrawing 19.2 billion cubic meters of water against renewable resources of 15.6 billion cubic meters of water. In two badly affected areas – Mhardeh in Hama governorate and Khan Shaykhunin Idleb governorate – the groundwater table fell by up to 100 meters from 1950 to 2000. In the aquifers around Damascus, the water table is plummeting at the rate of 6 meters a year or more – and springs have dried up in many areas. Since 1999, the Khabur River has had no perennial flow. [6]

One of the largest karst springs in the world, the Ras al Ain Springs on the Syrian-Turkish border, has disappeared completely since 2001 following extensive over-extraction in the spring catchment area over the last 50 years. The area of NEBK north of Damascus, which used to be renowned for its vines and wheat fields, has turned to desert following extensive over-exploitation of groundwater. [7]

Vulnerable to Extreme Drought

This mismanagement of Syrian water resources made Syria increasingly vulnerable to drought, with climate change as a threat multiplier. The drought from hell came in 2006 and lasted until the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Scientists are divided as to whether this drought was the worst in 500 or 900 years. [8] Gary Nabhan, a respected agricultural ecologist, says this dry period was the “worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” [9] The drought was especially intense and devastating to many people in Syria. The rainfall was 60% less than usual and some regions received no rain at all. The consequences for Syrian agriculture were devastating. The wheat harvest came in at 2.1 million tons in contrast to an average of 4.7 million tons before the draught. This forced Syria to import wheat for the first time in 15 years.[10]

No Preventive Defense

That said, it’s important to understand that drought is not unusual in Syria. In fact, Syria has experienced a drought in half the time in the last 50 years. Neighboring countries like Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel also experienced high levels of drought starting in 2006. But these four countries had all built robust resiliency programs before the drought to help them soften the impact and recover afterwards. But Syria never bothered to create a resiliency program. So, it was predictable that it was only in Syria where a grave humanitarian crisis occurred.

The Poverty of Northeast Syria

Instead, we see the negative dominoes falling. The longstanding deterioration of Syria’s natural resources was especially severe in its impact on Syria’s north-east. This was a region that has historically been poor and neglected by the government. In the two decades leading up to the Syrian uprising in 2011 the people in the northeast were hopeful things would improve. Twice there was a big build and twice there was a big let-down.

The Black Curse

First was the government’s discovery of oil. The oil brought considerable benefit to government revenues and to the economy. But the discovery of oil did little to relieve the poverty in the region. Second was the rapid development of the north-east water resources. [11]

Irrigation Mismanaged

The paradox for this natural resource disaster and its grave humanitarian and ultimately political and military disaster occurred in this same a region where the government invested heavily in water resources. Over 35 years (from 1985 to 2010), Syria doubled its irrigated area, from 651,000 hectares in 1985 to 1.35 million hectares in 2010. [12]

But the water was diverted once again for a privileged few. The UN estimated that between 2008 and 2011, 1.3 million people were affected by the drought with 800,000 people severely affected. [13] During this period, yields of wheat and barley fell 47% and 67% respectively, and livestock populations also plummeted. [14]

Food Insecurity

The Syrian people became less and less able to cope with the disaster. With no crops for two consecutive years, farmers no longer had seeds, while herders were forced to sell or slaughter their flocks. The incidence of nutrition related diseases soared. By 2010, the UN estimated that 3.7 million people or 17% of the Syrian population were food insecure. [15] Stephen Starr, Founder and Editor in Chief of Near East Quarterly, says the drought and the food shortages were the single most important factors setting off the revolt in 2011.

Migration

300,000 people migrated due to the drought, leaving more than two-thirds of the villages in two governorates (Hassakeh and Deir ez-Zor) deserted. 65,000 families migrated from north-east to the tent camps that lie around Damascus and Aleppo. By 2012, 3 million Syrians were in urgent need and food aid and said agricultural water use was unsustainable. [16] The combination of severe drought, persistent multiyear crop failures and the related economic deterioration led to a very significant dislocation and migration of rural communities to the cities. These factors further contributed to urban unemployment and economic dislocations and social unrest. [17]

Social and Political Unrest

All these factors added to growing economic and political uncertainty. Early warnings were prescient: some of the earliest political unrest began around the town of Dara’s, the historic breadbasket of Syria, where a particularly large influx of farmers was displaced off their lands by crop failures. Political unrest was also visible at Deirez-Zour and Hama. Deirez-Zour, one of the most dangerously dry areas, was full of deep-seated dissent. Hama was a major destination for drought-displaced farmers despite suffering its own water scarcity problems. [18]

Assad’s Indifference was the Trigger

It was not the drought, or the decline in food production or the rise in food insecurity which contributed to the disaffection of the Syrian people from the government. What fueled the Syrian uprising was the indifference of the Syrian government to the social, economic and humanitarian consequences of its policies on water and its failure to protect vulnerable populations against the effects of climactic disaster through adequate social safety nets. [19]

Assad's Indifference was Trigger

Suzanne Saleeby --writing in the February 2012 issue of Jadaliyya, a magazine from the Arab Studies Institute – provides an excellent analysis of the links between economic, environmental conditions and the political unrest. [20] Saleeby concurs. She says the uprising was triggered by the lamentable failure of the Assad government to respond with adequate humanitarian assistance or help farmers to ride out the drought and restore their productive capability.

Warning Ignored

P.H. Gleick notes that as early as 2008 the US embassy was warning the White House that the drought, food insecurity and social unrest could trigger an uprising. UN FAO Syrian Representative Abdullah bin Yehia warned that the impact of the drought combined with other economic and social pressure could undermine stability in Syria. And then in July 2008 the Syrian Minister of Agriculture warned publicly that the economic and social fallout from the drought was “beyond our capacity” as a country to deal with. [21]

Economic Connection to Conflict Missed

Despite this clear and present humanitarian crisis developing year after year, Francisco Femia notes that “the day before the revolt in Syria, many international security analysts were predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring. They concluded it was generally a stable country.” [22] What these international security analysts missed was an obvious connection between economics and conflict.

The contrast between indications and warning of a direct military threat and economic warnings could not be more different. If a Syrian ballistic missile was launched somewhere in the Middle East, shared early warning systems would immediately alert affected nations while that missile was still airborne. But if a country like Syria grossly mismanages its natural resources and year after year makes itself increasingly vulnerable to a massive drought, migration and social unrest, the White House regardless of party ignores these social and economic strategic warnings as strategically unimportant. [23]

Not Inevitable

The sad thing is none of this horrible humanitarian crisis in Syria was inevitable if the White House had officials who could have put aside their “realism” school of international relations and opened their eyes to the connection between economics and conflict. Imagine what it would have been like if a more attentive, prescient and creative US government had and pursued a depoliticized “preventive defense” with Syrian farmers as partners before the drought.

Bill Perry's Preventive Defense (Anticipate, Don't React)

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry used to call this preventive defense. You anticipate a problem and take actions to avoid it rather than stand flat footed and then react with far more costly and less effective military responses to an economic problem.

Partnership

It would have been relatively easy for experts from the foreign office of the US Department of Agriculture, US military civil affairs units, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to have worked in a depoliticized way to build robust resiliency programs during this earlier part of this lost decade. In a sense the White House asked the wrong questions. Instead of saying “How do we contain Syria? The White House should have imagined this negative scenario and asked “How do we help Syrian farmers build resiliency programs to protect the Syrian people? How do we help the Syrian people avoid such a nightmare from occurring in the first place?”

R2P - Better Late Than Never

As fate would have it, back in 2005 all the member states of the United Nations (UN) attended a UN Summit and endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The idea was to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The Syrian Civil War showed that the US once again missed an opportunity to engage President Assad, the US can at least help the Syrian people in the post-conflict period. Better late than never!

Climate Change was Threat Multiplier

The definitive scientific study by Dr. Colin P. Kelley et al, -- Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 March 2015 -- predicts an increasingly drier and hotter future for Syria and the surrounding Fertile Crescent. [24] Therefore, outside intervention needs to happen as soon as possible to create resiliency programs in Syria to avoid another humanitarian crisis and civil war that would devastate even more Syrians.

Agriculture Key to Stabilization and Recovery

This intervention needs to start with the same approach which should have happened during the early part the lost decade. The US government should partner with the Syrian government, the United Nations and other stakeholders and start the recovery in the rural and agricultural sector of Syria. That’s because agriculture is key to stabilization and recovery.

Resiliency

The key concept in rebuilding food security in the shattered rural economies of Syria is resilience. Resilience is the capacity of systems and people in the face of shocks, to absorb, adapt and transform.

Phase Zero: Shaping

For military “war planners’” resiliency is basically phase zero: how to shape the environment so conflict is less likely. In this regard, Christopher Ward and Sandra Ruckstuhl, two scholars of natural resource management, note that resiliency concept should “shape” the three lenses through which the Syrian crisis and its aftermath can be viewed. [25]

Crisis Management

The first lens is the immediate situation. This requires rapid intervention to support food security vulnerable populations.

Building Public Infrastructure: A Free Lunch

The second lens focuses on the task of rebuilding resilient systems and restoring livelihoods through investment in public infrastructure. For those penny-wise, dollar foolish skeptics, imagine what another Syrian civil war would cost. Then understand what Harvard Professor Larry Summers and IMF say. For everyone dollar spent investing in public infrastructure, the economy provides almost three dollars in output. Larry Summers calls this a free lunch. [26]

Undo Distortions in Agriculture

The third lens looks further ahead to the task of undoing the systemic distortions in agriculture, natural resources and the rural sector in Syria. These distortions fueled the crisis in the first place. Food security intervention need to fit within Syrian national policies. Skeptics say this is the showstopper. But this is arguably the best time to approach Assad. After all Assad is asking for help himself at this moment.

Get 360 Buy-In

It’s also important to get 360 degree buy in and leadership from all the local stakeholders. There needs to be cross-sector collaboration, with multiple agencies working together. There must be a flexible learning community for everyone. The goal is social inclusion and shared prosperity to reduce the demand for violence.

Benchmark

Intervention also needs to be tailored to each situation. In Syria that means improve food security. The immediate aim is to reduce Syria’s vulnerability to drought. Benchmark the resiliency programs of Syria’s neighbors. Ask how much of that works for Syria?

Equity and Sustainability

In the longer term, develop efficient, equitable and sustainable food systems.[27] Tailor the resiliency program to help the small farmer integrate into commercial value chains. Sustainable use of natural resources is also critical. To be more sustainable there needs to be more sustainable and more equitable use of groundwater and modernization of irrigation. Instead of wasting water with old flood irrigation, Israeli style trickle down irrigation technology needs to be used.

Migrants and Refugees as Assets

In addition, Uganda President Museveni is spot on when he uses migrants and refugees as assets rather than liabilities.[28] Finally, rhetoric is not enough. Create stronger capacity and institutions in order to lock in resiliency reforms.

No More Lost Chances at Engagement

Carsten Wieland, a diplomat with the German Foreign Office, has written a book with the descriptive title, Syria: A Decade of Lost Chances. [29] Wieland documents numerous opportunities for Western engagement with President Bashar Al Assad since he was President Assad in the 2000- 2010 lost decade. For one reason or another, these opportunities were squandered by the West or by Assad himself. It would be a tragedy if the US missed another opportunity to engage Assad and prevent another Syrian civil war.

[1] Brad Plumer, Drought helped cause Syria’s war. Will climate change bring more like it? The Washington Post, 10 September 2013

[2] Another view of why the international security analysts were wrong about Syria may come from Ken Pollack, a long time Middle Eastern political-military affairs expert and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ken likes to say that “the conventional wisdom in the Middle East is almost always wrong.”

[3] For instance, the Syrian construction of the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates River. While the dam brought benefits to a privileged few, families living in the area of the dam were driven off their land. They were forced to migrate into tents outside Damascus.

[4] Salman, M., and W. Mualla, 2003: The utilization of water resources for agriculture in Syria: Analysis of current situation and future challenges. Proc. Int. Seminar on Water Issues of the World Federation of Scientists, Erice, Sicily, Italy, IPTRID

[5] Wada, Y., L. P. H. van Beek, and M. F. P. Bierkens, 2012: Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: A global assessment. Water Resour. Res., 48, W00L06, doi:10.1029/2011WR010562. Crossref,

[6] Christopher Ward and Sandra Ruckstuhl, Water Scarcity, Climate Change and Conflict in the Middle East: Securing Livelihoods, Building Peace, IB Tauris, New York, 2017, p 82

[7] Francesca de Chatel, The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian uprising: Untangling the triggers of the revolution, Middle Eastern Studies, 50:4, 2014, p. 521-535.

[8] James L. Gelvin, The New Middle East, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2018, p. 56.

[9] Gary Nabhan, as cited by Femia, F., and C. Werrell, cited 2013: Syria: Climate change, drought, and social unrest. The Center for Climate and Security, 2013.

[10] Christopher Ward and Sandra Ruckstuhl, Water Scarcity, Climate Change and Conflict in the Middle East: Securing Livelihoods, Building Peace, IB Tauris, New York, 2017, p. 81.

[11] Francesca de Chatel, The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian uprising: Untangling the triggers of the revolution, Middle Eastern Studies, 50:4, 2014, p. 521-535.

[12] Francesca de Chatel, The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian uprising: Untangling the triggers of the revolution, Middle Eastern Studies, 50:4, 2014, p. 521-535.

[13] Solh, M., 2010: Tackling the drought in Syria. Nature Middle East, doi:10.1038/nmiddleeast.2010.206.

[14] ACSAD, 2011: Drought vulnerability in the Arab Region: Case study; Drought in Syria—Ten years of scarce water (2000–2010). ISDR and the Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands, 2011

[15] UN FAO, 2012: Syrian Arab Republic Joint Rapid Food Security Needs Assessment (JRFSNA).

[16] UN FAO, Syrian Arab Republic Joint Rapid Food Security Needs Assessment (JRFSNA). FAO Rep, 2012

[17] Francesca Femia and Caitlin Werrell, Syria: Climate change, drought, and social unrest. Center for Climate and Security; UN Food and Agriculture Organization, (FAO), Syrian Arab Republic Joint Rapid Food Security Needs Assessment (JRFSNA). FAO Rep., 2012; and Megan Perry, How climate change and failed policies have contributed to conflict in Syria, Sustainable Food Trust, 6 May 2016

[18] Saleeby, S., cited 2012: Sowing the seeds of dissent: Economic grievances and the Syrian social contract’s unraveling. [Available online at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4383/sowing-the-seeds-of-dissent_economic-grievances-an

[19] Christopher Ward and Sandra Ruckstuhl, Water Scarcity, Climate Change and Conflict in the Middle East: Securing Livelihoods, Building Peace, IB Tauris, New York, 2017, p. 81

[20] Saleeby, S., cited 2012: Sowing the seeds of dissent: Economic grievances and the Syrian social contract’s unraveling. [Available online at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4383/sowing-the-seeds-of-dissent_economic-grievances-an

[21] Peter H. Gleick, Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria, Pacific Institute, Oakland, CA, 1 July 2014

[22] Brad Plumer, Drought helped cause Syria’s war. Will climate change bring more like it? The Washington Post, 10 September 2013

[23] Francesca Femia and Caitlin Werrell, co-founders of the Center for Climate and Security, argue that factors related to drought, including agricultural failure, water shortages and water mismanagement have played an important role in contributing to the deterioration of social structures and spurring violence. Francesca Femia and Caitlin Werrell, Syria: Climate change, drought, and social unrest. The Center for Climate and Security, 2013.

[24] Colin P. Kelley et al, Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 March 2015

[25] Christopher Ward and Sandra Ruckstuhl, Water Scarcity, Climate Change and Conflict in the Middle East: Securing Livelihoods, Building Peace, IB Tauris, New York, 2017, pp. 176-182.

[26] Larry Summers, Building the case for greater infrastructure investment, September 12, 2016; http://larrysummers.com/2016/09/12/building-the-case-for-greater-infrastructure-investment/

[27] See Leif Rosenberger, Reconciling the Global Supply and Demand for Food in Roubini Global Economics, 28 February 2018.

[28] See Leif Rosenberger, “Can Uganda Step Up to New Economic Challenges?” EconoMonitor, Roubini Global Economics, 25 June 2017,

.

[29] Wieland, Carsten, et al. The Syrian Uprising: Dynamics of an Insurgency, University of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, Fife, Scotland, 2013.

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