Main page content

ECC Factbook Case: Climate Change and the Civil War in Syria

Conceptual Model Climate Change and Syrian Civil War ECC Factbook
The ECC Factbook Conceptual Model applied to the Syrian Civil War. Credit: adelphi

The ECC Factbook is an online tool that informs both policymakers and the general public about over 100 current conflicts with an environmental dimension. It seeks to contribute to preventing, transforming and resolving these types of conflicts by helping users to better understand the drivers behind environmental conflict and to harness the lessons from earlier (non-) interventions. It also calls for preventive measures to strengthen those institutions that stand between global environmental change and local, national and regional outcomes in terms of conflict.

One of the cases is the on-going conflict in Syria. It offers an important insight into how environmental factors can feed into popular grievances and, in combination with other social factors, produce widespread violence and suffering.

Since protests started in March 2011, the conflict has become one of the worst in recent decades, causing 220,000 deaths. The emergence of ISIS has further complicated the conflict, as has the increasingly direct intervention of regional and major powers. Millions of refugees and migrants represent a major challenge for countries neighbouring Syria and beyond.

The direct causes of the Syrian crisis relate to popular discontent with the authoritarian regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Yet, numerous experts have highlighted the roles of climate change, drought and poor resource management as additional factors behind the crisis.

Over the past decades, the Mediterranean littoral zone and the Middle East have warmed up considerably leading to an intensification of drought cycles. According to a study from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this change towards drier conditions cannot be explained by natural variability alone. A particularly serious drought hit the region between 2006 and 2010. In Syria, the consequences were disastrous, including an estimated 2-3 million people driven into extreme poverty.

The impact of drought was compounded by social factors. The unsustainable water policies of the Ba’ath party contributed to a rapid depletion of local aquifers. To win public support, it pursued over-ambitious agricultural projects, provided subsidies for water-intensive crops and inefficient irrigation methods, and turned a blind eye to unsustainable patterns of water consumption, including thousands of unlicensed ‘black wells’.

By 2011, the droughts had left an estimated one million Syrian civilians in extreme food insecurity. This resulted in a large exodus of farmers and herders to urban areas. A shock in food prices stirred nationwide unrest. The government did little to address this desperate situation. The situation also brought about tensions between different societal groups.
These dynamics played out in a particularly volatile political context. Before 2011, many Syrians already held strong grievances against the Assad regime. The example of revolutions in other Arab countries was obviously important in triggering the original protests in Syria. Furthermore, the government was quite reluctant in assisting the drought-stricken population.
To resolve the conflict, the international community has repeatedly attempted to negotiate peace. Yet, these efforts have so far failed in the face of seemingly incompatible positions of the warring parties. To resolve the environmental dimension of the Syrian civil war, many other measures will be necessary. The diversification of the Syrian economy with a view to lessening the importance of the agricultural sector and improving water infrastructure and water management will be crucial. Most of these can, however, only be initiated once the violence of the conflict abates.

Overall, the situation has dramatically deteriorated since 2011 and much is yet to be done to resolve it.

This analysis, as well as all infographics and data, are available at  Several short videos on case studies from the ECC Factbook can be found on the ECC Video Platform. They explain some of the conflicts with an environmental dimension. The videos demonstrate, for example, the dynamics and mechanisms behind the outbreak of the civil war in Syria or Darfur.