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Syria is a warning sign: How climate change can contribute to fragility

Five-year-long drought had devastating impacts on livelihoods in Syria

Over the last decade, a body of research has emerged that explores the role climate change plays in the complex dynamics that create fragility and conflict. This research provides us with a unique perspective – one that does not discount other important drivers of fragility and conflict such as political and social marginalisation or unresponsive and oppressive governments, but which looks closely at what role climate change can play in exacerbating fragility by exerting extra pressure on states and societies.

The Syrian crisis was preceded by five-year-long drought that had devastating impacts on the livelihoods of many Syrians. It is the worst drought on record, affecting 1.3 million people. The northeast – the breadbasket of the country – was hit hardest. Herders lost nearly 85 percent of their livestock and nearly 75 percent of agriculture-dependent families suffered total crop failure. The impacts of the drought were exacerbated by a long legacy of resource mismanagement and groundwater depletion. For example, the government had provided large subsidies for water-intensive wheat and cotton farming, thus increasing the vulnerability to drought.

Government fails to respond, fuelling discontent and grievances

The massive loss of livelihoods led to migration from the countryside into the cities. These were already overcrowded because of rapid population growth and the influx of an estimated 1.2-1.5 million Iraqi refugees. Between 2002 and 2010, the urban population of Syria had grown from 8.9 to 13.8 million. Crime, unemployment and stress on urban infrastructure increased. One million people were food insecure. The government failed to respond to the humanitarian crisis, fuelling simmering discontent and pre-existing grievances, especially in rural areas. The first protests began in the rural town of Dara’a, where secret police arrested and tortured a group of teenagers. People in other cities gathered in support of the “Children of Dara’a”. The initial protests followed the path of the drought. These peaceful protests to express people’s grievances at the government’s failure to act later escalated into the civil war that continues today.

The Syrian crisis shows what can happen when climate change interacts with other stress factors such as unsustainable resource management, unemployment, rapid urbanisation, environmental degradation, increasing the pressure on a state with an oppressive and unresponsive government that is already dealing with persistent inequality, political marginalisation and external pressures such as the influx of refugees.

Seven compound climate-fragility risks that threaten global security

Livelihood insecurity and migration is one of seven compound climate-fragility risks which the recent report A New Climate For Peace identifies as threats to global security. In addition to this global risk analysis, the report also analyses how ready existing policy processes and institutions for climate change adaptation, development cooperation, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding are to address compound climate-fragility risks. In addition, the ECC Factbook covering all seven compound climate-fragility risks further explores case studies with similarities to recent events in Syria.

Lukas Rüttinger is a Senior Project Manager at adelphi and a lead author of A New Climate for Peace. As a Political Science graduate, he specialises in the areas of development and security, and resources and governance.