The G20 are currently meeting, locked in debate over what to do about the ongoing atrocities in Syria. I don’t envy them the challenge. The conflict in Syria is profoundly complicated. But amongst the talk of Shia and Sunni, of the role of Russia, and who may have used chemical weapons and why, there’s one side of the conflict that has had very little attention. That’s the story of food production in Syria recently, and behind that, the country’s changing climate.
The link between food prices and social unrest is as old as civilization itself. There’s nothing like hunger to get people onto the streets, and many of the incidences of unrest and revolution over the past few years have coincided with spikes in the price of food. It’s not the only factor by any means, but it seems to act as a catalyst for underlying dissatisfaction. One study in 2011 attempted to quantify this effect, and found that when the FAO’s Food Price Index reaches 210, riots become much more likely. The Arab Spring, you will note, coincides with a dramatic rise in the price of food. The index has remained above 210 until this month, when it dropped to 201.
Syria has not escaped those price rises. Like much of the Middle East, Syria’s population has soared in recent decades, doubling since the late 80s. That’s put a huge strain on water resources and agricultural land. Supply of food rose initially, but has not been able to keep up with demand, making the country dependent on imports and vulnerable to price rises.
This long term problem has then been compounded by a long drought. Between 2006 and 2011, 60% of the country suffered a serious drought. 800,000 farmers and herders lost their livelihoods, and 2-3 million people were pushed into poverty. Many left the land and moved to the cities, while the Assad regime did not support its farmers or provide assistance to refugees.
All the usual caveats apply when thinking about natural disasters in the context of climate change – it’s impossible to say that Syria’s drought is or isn’t a result of the globally changing climate, only that a changing global climate makes it more likely. Would the drought have happened without climate change? Would the food prices have risen without the drought? Would the revolution have started without the food price spike? Nobody can say for sure, but it’s all part of the background story of what is happening in Syria today.
What we can say is that as the climate warms, the likelihood of extreme weather events will continue to increase. The combination of population growth and resource stress will continue to bite. And where it does, there’s a greater chance of conflict. This may not be a talking point for the media or the politicians yet, but security experts know it. A US Department of Defense paper from earlier this year spells it out pretty well: “Climate change … may have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to greater competition for more limited and critical life-sustaining resources like food and water. While the effects of climate change alone do not cause conflict, they may act as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world.”