Drought and migration

Syria wasn’t prepared for the effects of climate change, and neither are we

For four years the world has witnessed the increasingly horrific civil war in Syria, during which some 240,000 people have died, 4 million have fled the country and 7 million have lost their homes. Now thousands of Syrian refugees are swarming across Europe, seeking asylum and safety.

There is an inclination to believe this mass migration is entirely the product of the civil war, and certainly that war is its proximate cause. But, as Symbolia magazine has pointed out, it’s important to remember that the unrest in Syria had its origins in a devastating drought that lasted five years, from 2006 to 2011, and affected half the country.

Syria, of course, had experienced droughts before. But this one was of an intensity and duration that went well beyond normal fluctuations. Scientists say it resulted from climate change.

Nearly 1.5 million rural villagers lost their livelihoods and crowded into the cities. The kleptocratic regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad did little to help them. In the southern city of Daraa, teenagers taking their cues from their Arab Spring counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia painted anti-Assad political slogans on a wall. Fifteen boys were arrested and tortured. Then, when hundreds of people demonstrated outside the governor’s house, government forces fired on them, killing three.

This was the precipitating event. Protests broke out in other cities, and militias began to form. The war was on.

The immediate lesson here is this: When civic instability combines with climate change, as is occurring in Syria and elsewhere, chaos can result. Scientists long have warned of the destabilizing impacts of climate change, and the resultant mass migrations that can and will result.

We’re seeing it today in Syria. Tomorrow it could be Bangladesh or Pakistan, India or Mexico. Are we prepared? Not even close. Meanwhile, we continue to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.