Putting the life back in science fiction

The Syrian Water War (?)

Not that I’m an expert on foreign policy or Syria (there’s someone with the same last name who is. We’re not related). The one thing I do understand, a little bit, is water politics, and that’s may well be one of the important drivers of the Syrian civil war. As Mark Twain said, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” And good Muslims won’t drink whiskey. Since I’m interested in the deep future with climate change, this might be a portrait of things to come for other parts of the world, including where I live in the southwestern US.

Here’s the issue: between 2006 and 2011, the eastern 60 percent of Syria experienced “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago,” forcing 200,000 Syrians off the land (out of 22 million total in Syria) and causing them to abandon 160 towns entirely (source). In one region in 2007-2008, 75% of farmers suffered total crop failure, while herders in the northeast lost up to 85% of their flocks, which affected 1.3 million people (source). Assad’s policies exacerbated the problem. His administration subsidized for water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton, and promoted bad irrigation techniques (source. I’m still looking for a description of what those bad irrigation techniques were.).

These refugees moved to cities like Damascus, which were already dealing with over a million refugees from Iraq and Palestine. They dug 25,000 illegal wells around Damascus, lowering the water table and increasing groundwater salinity (source). The revolt in 2011 broke out in southern Daraa and northeast Kamishli, two of the driest parts of the country, and reportedly, Al Qaeda affiliates are most active in the driest regions of the country (source).

One thing that worsened the problem was Turkey. The Tigris, Euphrates, and Orantes Rivers flow out of Kurdistan in Turkey into Syria. Turkey, in a bid to modernize the Kurdish region, built 22 dams on these rivers up to 2010 in the Southeastern Anatolia Project. They’ve taken half the water out of the Euphrates, and used it to grow large amounts of cotton within Anatolia, doubling or trebling local income in that traditionally rebellious area.

So is drought destiny? Experts caution that it’s not that simple (source). In 2012, the American Midwest suffered a record drought, While that may have led to Tea Party outbursts in the 2012 elections, it didn’t lead to armed insurrection. (As an aside, you can figure out how well the drought map correlates with the 2012 Presidential election map. Washington might one day take note of this…). Still, when you couple drought, poverty, bad governance, and a witch’s brew of historical grievances and systemic injustice, drought can cause a civil war.

There are a couple of big problems here. The first is that the US didn’t see the revolt coming. Right up until the first protests started, they thought that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring (source). This isn’t all that surprising. Due to the War on Terror, the CIA and other agencies work closely with government intelligence agencies to hunt terrorists (source), and have little or no intelligence capability to learn what’s happening on the “Arab Street.” This led to the US missing the Arab Spring movement pretty much in its entirety. The US military has been talking about climate change for years, and they’re starting to get serious about preparing to deal with it (source), but they don’t seem to have a functional reporting system yet, let alone a good way to respond. To put it bluntly, no one in Washington or other capitals seems to watching things like water supplies, crop reports, rural migration to cities, or even the price of bread. Or if they are, they’re not being listened to. Spikes in bread prices throughout North Africa helped prepare the ground for the Arab Spring uprisings, and the region is still a major wheat importer (source).

The second problem is that, so far, our leaders haven’t officially acknowledged that water’s a problem. Basically, during the drought, Syrian per capita water dropped by almost half. While a lot of this could be returned by better management, growing different crops, convincing people not to eat bread in the place where wheat was first farmed, and so forth, there are probably too many people relative to the water supply, at least during droughts. Part of this is demographics. The population of the Middle East has quadrupled over the last 60 years, and the water supply, if anything, has shrunk (source). The brutal answer is to get rid of those people, which may be one reason why Assad was so willing to use chemical weapons. There are 1.851 million registered Syrian refugees at the moment, and that’s about one percent of the population outside the country. Assad (and whoever follows him) may not be interested in having them return, either. Syria likely would be more stable with fewer thirsty mouths.

What’s the solution? One important part is to get water on the negotiating table. Turkey officially helps Syria with water flows, but it’s not clear how diverting half a river is a friendly gesture, and the two countries are not on good diplomatic terms. If the Turks are using the Euphrates to water cotton, most of that water is lost to the air, rather than flowing back into the river where Syria can get it. Turkey could help stabilize Syria by letting more water out of its dams, but by doing so, it would risk insurrection in Kurdistan, so I don’t think they will voluntarily give up that water. Since Turkey’s water sources are secure for the moment, I suspect that quite a few Syrians are going to be resettling there, just as Iraqis and Palestinians are (or were) living in Damascus. More countries should volunteer to permanently take in Syrian refugees, especially in the north (as Sweden has). Why not? It increases populations in areas that are experiencing population decreases due to low birth rates, and it’s cheaper than trying to fight in the Middle East. Moving people to where there’s water is much less cruel than interring them in refugee camps in border deserts with inadequate resources and no hope.

One of the problems with climate change is that the northern edges of deserts are forecast to get drier, and the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin are one of those edges. If we want to avoid continual unrest in that region, it’s high time we all (in the international sense) start financing regional desalination plants in the Middle East and other dry areas. This has worked to secure water for Israel. Granted, it’s an energy intensive solution, but a large-scale desalination plant is cheaper than a single day of all-out ground war, US style (source).

The other lesson here is that politics and politicians matter. Drought isn’t necessarily destiny, but bad water management choices can turn a chronic problem of scarce resources into a bloody war. If you want to know why I’m not a libertarian, this is why. It’s nice to have liberty, but it’s necessary to have water. Good politicians work to get you enough of both, and we need more of them at the moment.


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You might also be interested in this related story in Science:

Science 2 August 2013:
Vol. 341 no. 6145 pp. 444-445
DOI: 10.1126/science.341.6145.444

News & Analysis

Social Science
Study Links Climate Change and Violence, Battle Ensues

John Bohannon

Researchers debate whether climate change spurs violence, such as the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur.

In many large cities, police know that a hot summer will be a busy time, as murder and mayhem spike with the temperature. Some social scientists say that the same pattern could hold globally. Along with wilted harvests and a loss of biodiversity, they say, climate change could lead to escalating violence. Now, a study published online this week in Science tries to quantify the increase. Based on dozens of published studies correlating extreme weather and human conflict, it concludes that warmer temperatures and more extreme rainfall patterns could boost interpersonal violence by 16% and group conflicts in some regions by 50% by 2050.

“We were conservative and the result is still clear,” says econometrician Solomon Hsiang, the paper’s lead author, who will soon join the University of California, Berkeley. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, who has studied climate change and conflict since the 1990s, agrees. “This study, precisely because it’s an extremely carefully done meta-analysis, will push the debate a big step forward.”

The study’s critics, however, aren’t impressed—and the paper is adding fuel to a long-standing dispute over the possible links between climate and conflict. One problem, they argue, is that the study conflates weather with climate. Another is that the researchers may have based their conclusions on a biased subset of studies. “They are more optimistic and confident in their results than I would be,” says Andrew Solow, a statistician at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Standing in the crossfire is Hsiang, who says that when he first got interested in the issue 2 years ago while finishing his Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University, “I had no idea that I was stepping into the middle of a debate that has been raging for 20 years.”

The climate-violence connection has long intrigued scientists. Psychological studies have shown that people become more aggressive when the temperature becomes uncomfortably hot, and higher temperatures are known to correlate with higher urban homicide rates. Researchers have also fingered extreme precipitation—floods and droughts—for promoting violence.

In his dissertation, Hsiang explored a possible association between conflict and shifting weather patterns due to El Niño events in the Pacific Ocean. The work led to a 2011 Nature paper that demonstrated that conflicts spiked in areas affected by El Niño. A year later, he began collaborating on a broader study with Marshall Burke and Edward Miguel, both economists at Berkeley.

They started with “about 1000” papers that touched on the topic, which they whittled down to several hundred that had sufficient data for analysis. Many of these were cross-sectional, comparing rates of violence between places that have different climates. “That is a very tempting approach,” Hsiang says. “The problem is that when we compare populations in very different locations, they are different in ways that we can’t capture in a model.” Differing histories and cultures, for example, may better explain patterns of violence than differences in climate.

To avoid that problem, Hsiang and his coauthors restricted themselves to 61 longitudinal studies that collected conflict and weather data from the same places over time. The “mountain of data” covered a range of scales, from studies of interpersonal violence such as assault, murder, and rape, to group- or state-level conflicts such as riots and wars. The studies spanned all regions of the world and stretched back 10,000 years. A majority had been published since 2009.

A clear pattern emerged. When the average precipitation or temperature in a place strayed from its average seasonal value, violence tended to increase. Interpersonal violence increased by 4% for an increase of 1 standard deviation away from the average (for example, a New York City summer about 3°C above average). And the effect was stronger for intergroup violence, with a 1 standard deviation difference translating into a 14% increase in the frequency of such conflicts. In some regions, those numbers could mean an increase of up to 50% in the frequency of violence by 2050, Hsiang and his colleagues note, if global temperatures increase by the 2 to 4 standard deviations projected by mainstream climate scenarios.

That forecast is unfounded, argues Halvard Buhaug, an economist at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, because the study suffers from “selection bias.” The authors ignored some data in the selected papers, he says, and “more worrisome,” appear to have used data “that return the strongest effects.” Hsiang says they dealt with the potential for bias “head on” with statistical analysis, but found little.

The selected papers may have also confused “single sharp” weather events such as heat waves with longer term climate shifts, Solow says. He points out that in sub-Saharan Africa, there is no doubt that climate change has been unfolding over the past several decades. But over the same period, “the overall rate of civil conflict has declined.”

Hsiang’s study “is an amazing compilation and analysis of data” that “makes you think,” says archeologist Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But he’s not convinced, he adds, and “it does little to end the impasse” among those who foresee more violence in a warmer world, and those who are cool to the idea.

Comment by alexandertolley

That’s a good point, Alex. I’d wanted to focus the Syrian story on water, but temperature extremes probably matter too. The interesting part is that it seems to be about temperature spikes, such as “the dog days of summer,” or “mango madness” (the Australian version) or even the Santa Anas of southern California. I’m not sure they proved their point, but it’s certainly folk wisdom that when it’s hot and sticky or static-y, tempers flare.

Comment by Heteromeles

Environmental determinism, Heteromeles?
Surely not! It’s well-known that Human Ingenuity renders any environmental constraint nugatory,

Comment by Lars

Yep. That’s why Mark Twain noted that, in the American west, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” On a more serious note, the deserts of the world (except for Australia and Antarctica) are littered with the remains of dead cities that were killed by drought, dating back something like 6000 years. I don’t think we’ve gotten sufficiently ingenious to solve this particular problem, either. To date, our solutions (aqueducts, dams, wells, and so forth) are also thousands of years old. While I doubt desalination is a long-term solution, large desalinization plants may buy the time and peace to get people resettled in places with enough water, and to spend the decades ironing out more sustainable water-sharing policies for the people who remain.

Comment by Heteromeles

Very interesting!

Orontes, though, not Orantes; and tripled, not trebled or tribbled. 🙂

Comment by David Marjanović

[…] I decided to look back at my 2013 post on the Syrian Water War, to see where we are 3 1/2 years later.  Has anything changed?  Is there anything we can learn, […]

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