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A New Climate for Peace: Syria

Aleppo, Syria

Case Study

Drought, livelihood insecurity, migration, and conflict

What started as a peaceful protest in March 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has degenerated into a bloody conflict. The Syrian uprising was triggered by a series of socio-economic, political, and environmental factors, including growing poverty, rising unemployment, lack of political freedom, corruption, a widening rural/urban divide, a severe drought, resource mismanagement, and the impact of climate change on water and crop production.

Between 2006 and 2011, Syria suffered a severe drought. It hit the northeast region—the country’s breadbasket—the hardest. Herders in the northeast lost nearly 85 percent of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people. Nearly 75 percent of families that depend on agriculture suffered total crop failure. 

The drought was exacerbated by a long legacy of resource mismanagement. Large government subsidies for water-intensive wheat and cotton farming encouraged inefficient irrigation techniques. Farmers sought to increase supply by tapping the country’s groundwater resources. As the drought dragged on into its second and third years, the Syrian government cancelled a number of state subsidies, which overnight multiplied the price of diesel fuel and fertilizers.

The massive loss of livelihoods pushed farmers, herders, and rural families to migrate to overcrowded cities, stressing urban infrastructure and basic services, and increasing urban unemployment. More than 1 million people were food insecure, adding substantial pressure to pre-existing stressors, such as grievances and government mismanagement. This food insecurity was one of the factors that pushed the country over the threshold into violent conflict. The government failed to respond to the humanitarian crisis, fuelling simmering discontent in the 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.



  • Châtel, Francesca de 2014: The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian uprising: untangling the triggers of the revolution. In: Middle Eastern Studies 50:4, pp 521–535.
  • Erian, Wadid; Bassem Katlan and Ouldbdey Babah 2010: Global assessment report on disaster risk reduction: drought vulnerability in the Arab region. Special case study: Syria. Geneva: UNISDR.
  • Femia, Francesco and Caitlin Werrell 2012: Syria: climate change, drought and social unrest. Retrieved 18 Feb 2015, from….
  • Kelley, Colin P.; Shahrzad Mohtadi; Mark A. Cane; Richard Seager and Yochanan Kushnir 2014: Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112:11, pp 3241–3246.
  • United Nations 2010: UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food: mission to Syria from 29 August to 7 September 2010. Retrieved 10 Jan 2015, from….
  • Werrell, Caitlin E. und Francesco Femia (eds.) 2013: The Arab Spring and climate change: a climate and security correlations series. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Case Studies

These 9 case studies illustrating climate and fragility risks and their complex interactions were selected based on geography, the availability of analysis and data, and the interests of the G7 partners.