Drought’s contribution to growing risks of conflict
Considered a major factor in the spread of extremism in countries like Syria, Nigeria and Mali, it’s high time the international community found ways to mitigate drought’s social and political effects.
Areport released earlier this month by the Environmental Justice Foundation adds to a growing body of research that suggests a historically severe drought in Syria was an important — though certainly not the sole — factor contributing to the conflict there, and that drought poses an increasing risk to conflict worldwide.
Throughout human history, there has been a clear link between competition over scarce water resources and conflict. In the 20th century, it became clear that drought can exacerbate conflict, and that in turn conflict creates conditions that can turn drought into famine.
In the 21st century, growing research demonstrates the direct contributions that drought can make to instability and conflict. Furthermore, it is becoming clearer that climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions is increasing the prevalence and severity of drought, and thus contributing to conflict.
To be clear, few researchers have argued that drought alone causes conflict; rather, the evidence suggests that drought is one of multiple factors that increase the risk of political instability, conflict and war — in other words, drought is a “threat multiplier.”
Furthermore, few researchers argue that climate change alone causes drought; rather, the evidence suggests that climate change is increasing the frequency, duration and degree of drought. As climate change continues, the degree to which severe weather contributes to conflict is likely to increase unless people and leaders recognize the risk and try to mitigate it.
While drought can increase risks of conflict between countries, most of the research to date focuses on drought’s contribution to sub-state conflict. Various studies have identified drought as a contributing factor to conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, Nigeria and other places. In some cases, drought contributes to the factors that start a conflict. In some cases, drought plays a role in lengthening or expanding a conflict, and exacerbating the suffering of civilians caught up in war.
Studies by multiple academics, think tanks and journalists have considered the role that climate change and drought played in the run-up to the Syrian civil war. From 2007-2010, Syria experienced the area’s worst drought “in the instrumental record,” according to an article published in the March 2015 edition of the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The authors wrote that climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions “increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone.”
Even more shocking, a NASA study published in 2016 found that “the recent drought that began in 1998 in the eastern Mediterranean Levant region, which comprises Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past nine centuries.”
The drought caused largescale migration from rural areas to Syria’s cities. An Atlantic Council article published in September said more than 1.5 million people in Syria “moved from rural or urban areas” during the drought, and contributed to a significant drop in Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Many cities were already under strain from a previous influx of Iraqi refugees and government mismanagement.
The resulting increase in poverty and social tensions, and the apparent failure of the government to address the problem, likely contributed to the 2011 protests that preceded the civil war. It is important to again note that drought was not the only or even primary cause of the Syrian conflict, but rather a factor that increased the risk of instability.
In some cases, drought plays a less direct role in raising the risks of instability. A 2013 study by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center and the Center for Climate and Security examined the ways in which weather events in other parts of the world, including drought in China, contributed to very high global wheat prices in 2010 and 2011, creating a significant burden for Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer. High food prices were likely one of several factors that contributed to the 2011 protests in Egypt.
In places where water scarcity combines with conflict, water is sometimes weaponized by states or groups. Daesh was particularly adept at weaponizing water; a study in June by the Center for Climate and Security found that Daesh “was responsible for 21 of the 44 (water) weaponization incidents we catalogued from 2012-2015.” Multiple media reports also attest to its use of water in war.
The contribution that drought can make to conflict has importance far beyond the immediate locales affected by conflict. Drought has indirect but important links to migration from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa to Europe, with significant political and humanitarian consequences. Drought has been a contributing factor in the spread of extremism in countries such as Syria, Nigeria and Mali, which can also have consequences far beyond them.
Understanding the role that climate change plays in making drought more prevalent and extreme, and understanding how drought contributes to conflict, is important for the international community, as is considering ways to mitigate drought’s social and political effects.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Twitter: @KBAresearch