John Light: What’s been going on with Syria’s water resources over the past several years?
Francesco Femia: Essentially, a massive, five-and-a-half-year drought. From 2006 to 2011, 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced, in the words of one expert, the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago. That, on top of natural resource mismanagement by the Assad regime — subsidizing water-intensive wheat and cotton farming and unsustainable irrigation techniques — led to a large amount of devastation.
There are some quite frightening numbers. Herders and farmers in the north and south had to pick up and move. Nearly 75 percent of farmers in the northeast suffered total crop failure. Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their livestock, which affected about 1.3 million people. That was happening before the civil war in Syria broke out.
Many international security analysts were saying, right up to the day before protest broke out in the small rural town of Daraa, that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring and to the grievances that other Arab publics had brought to bear on their leaders. And that clearly wasn’t the case.
There was quite a bit of displacement happening; millions were trekking into urban areas. Those urban areas were experiencing quite a bit of economic insecurity. Some of that was also coming from poverty and competition from other influxes of people — for example, Iraqi refugees who had been flowing into Syria since 2003, and also Palestinian refugees. These were cities that were already hard-pressed economically.
There wasn’t a lot of information on this until quite recently. The Assad regime wasn’t allowing journalists access to these farmers and herders who were moving into the cities. The military would often accompany the migrants to make sure that journalists had no access. But under the surface of what seemed to be a stable country, there was a large-scale environmental and human disaster happening.
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