How Climate Change Helped Lead to the Uprising in Syria

A new study draws links between a record drought in Syria and the uprising that erupted there in 2011. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, Colin Kelley, the study’s lead author, discusses how the severity of that drought was connected to a long-term warming trend in the region.

Before Syria devolved into civil war, that country experienced its worst drought on record. The consequences of this disaster included massive crop failures, rising food prices, unemployment, and a mass migration to urban areas. In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest that the drought and its ensuing chaos helped spark the Syrian uprising. They go on to make the case that climate change was responsible for the severity of that drought. Colin P. Kelley, a climatologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was the study’s lead author. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Kelley explains that long-term precipitation and soil temperature trends in Syria and the rest of the region known as the Fertile Crescent correlate well with climate change models, demonstrating, he says, that the record-setting drought can’t be attributed to natural variability.

Yale Environment 360: The multi-year drought in Syria that began in 2006 led to, among other things, a massive migration of farm families to urban areas and a steep rise in food prices. What were the societal effects of that upheaval?

Colin Kelley: Well, you had the drought and its severity, and it came on the heels of another severe drought in the 1990s. But in addition to that, Syria was highly vulnerable even before the drought, meaning that it had this very strong reliance on wheat production and on year-to-year rainfall

variability, but also very strong reliance on groundwater for irrigation. And the groundwater had been going steadily down, partially due to the dramatic rise in population in recent decades. So there was basically a reduction in supply of water and an increase in the demand for water. And when the severe drought happened, there was an agricultural collapse in the northeastern breadbasket region. It was so severe and different than anything in the past that the farmers basically picked up their families and abandoned their villages in the northeast and went to the cities in Syria’s west to try and survive.

These up to a million-and-a half internally displaced people from the rural areas to the urban areas came shortly after the influx of as many as a million-and-a-half Iraqi refugees from when the U.S. went into Iraq [in the preceding years]. So there was a tremendous population shock, an increase in population in these urban areas in Syria’s west — a 50-percent increase in population in those cities from 2002 to 2010. That’s a dramatic rise in population in a very short period of time, and it basically occurred right before the uprising.

For the complete interview, please see Yale Environment 360.