09/09/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Climate Change And The Syrian Conflict: Why We Need To Pay Attention

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - JUNE 16: Syrians fleeing the clashes in the city of Tal Abyad, cross into Turkey from the borderline in Akcakale district of Sanliurfa on June 16, 2015. Hundreds of Syrians who fled from Syria after clashes in the city of Tal Abyad, which borders Turkey, have crossed into Turkey since the beginning of June. (Photo by Ali hsan Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

While many have been ridiculing the "mad scientists" who cry wolf over global warming, Syria may now be proof of how a severe drought exacerbated by rising temperatures helped trigger a violent civil unrest that has resulted in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Yes, it was not just oil or religion -- the sly hand of climate change played a large part too.

A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has underlined evidence that the severe drought in Syria from 2007-2010 was instrumental in triggering the chaos in the country. It was the worst drought recorded, causing widespread crop failure, 85% death of livestock, water shortage, starvation and mass migration of almost 1.5 million rural farmers to Syria's urban centres. Almost simultaneously, the country was also witnessing the influx of over 1.3 million Iraqis who were fleeing war. The relocated farmers and the migrants caused the urban population in overcrowded cities like Daraa to grow over by 50% in less than 10 years, causing massive strain on the existing resources. Unemployment rates skyrocketed and by 2011, 30% of the Syrian inhabitants were facing food shortages.

"Experts say that rising temperatures and scarcity of water will increase the risk of conflict in both high-income and low-income countries, often substantially."

When no remediation actions were taken to curb the crisis, a group of desperate teenagers decided to protest against the government's indifference and the authorities in power pushed back the "rebels" using brute force. When both sides picked up arms and ammunition, a civil war was born that has now claimed up to 220,000 lives, according to a UN estimate. Almost 4 million of the country's population have been displaced, and headlines are now filled with harrowing stories of migrants, including young children, who have died trying to seek refuge on safer shores.

Although climate change may not be the only cause of the civil unrest, the authors of the PNAS report confidently believe that it is a tremendous "catalytic factor." Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature and sea-level pressure, say the researchers, strongly suggest that severe and persistent droughts are now more likely to occur in the region, and temperamental shifts in wind movement can cause the occurrence of a drought as catastrophic as that of 2007-2010, three times more than natural variability alone. The scientists modelled the observational record of Syria's climate change over the last century according to global climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change and the trends reveal that the warmer and drier climate in the region is almost certainly caused by the carbon emission in the atmosphere. Even if this climate-stressed country recovers politically, Syria is on the path to lose 50% more of its agricultural capacity by 2050.

Advocates and researchers have argued over the effects and realities of climate change for many years, but now its consequences are shaping our reality. Experts say that rising temperatures and scarcity of water in the coming years will increase the risk of conflict in both high-income and low-income countries, often substantially. In short: global warming can increase the likelihood of countries going to war and Syria is a glaring example of this. As we inch towards a warmer and drier future, our governments need to be prepared with resiliency plans to deal with the socio-economic aftermaths of such environmental crisis. In order to do so, the first and foremost step would be to open our eyes and acknowledge the impact of climate change on the globe. It cannot get any more real than this.

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