Breaking research

Five years of drought leads to two years of revolution in Syria

Negotiators in Geneva might not have brought the conflict in Syria to an end last week, but work just published by an academic from Radboud University in the Netherlands explains how the 2006–10 drought contributed to its start.

Writing in the current issue of Middle Eastern Studies, Francesca de Châtel makes it clear that “it was not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising, feeding a discontent that had long been simmering in rural areas.”

In her view, the situation now facing Syria is “the culmination of 50 years of sustained mismanagement of water and land resources”. The “relentless drive to increase agricultural output and expand irrigated agriculture” blinded policy makers to the limits of the country’s resources; overgrazing caused rapid desertification; the cancellation of subsidies for diesel and fertiliser as part of a botched transition to a social-market economy increased rural poverty; and countless families abandoned their farms for the cities in search of work.

In short, the “ongoing failure to rationalize water use and enforce environmental and water use laws” has depleted resources and caused “growing disenfranchisement and discontent in Syria’s rural communities”.

de Châtel is particularly critical of the culture of secrecy that surrounds the subject of water within the Syrian government. She claims that a “fixation on water as a ‘sensitive’ issue has extended far beyond strategic considerations and covers all levels of water management. Water has become a taboo that is reluctantly discussed, not only in the public domain but also at government level.” The result is an avoidance of any deeper analysis of the country’s water troubles and merely cosmetic efforts at reform.

With reference to claims made by others that climate change is partly to blame for the current crisis, de Châtel is clear: “The extent to which climate change exacerbated the situation is debateable, but in any case should not reduce the burden of responsibility on the Syrian government … Climate change per se […] did not drive Syrians into the street in protest; it was the Syrian government’s failure to adapt to changing environmental, economic and social realities.”

de Châtel’s article provides much-needed insight into the complex nature of the Syrian conflict, as well as a clear indication of what needs to change when negotiators finally succeed in bringing peace to that dry and troubled land.