Filed under: American politics, California, climate change, Syria, Water | Tags: California water, climate change, Syria, Syrian civil war, water politics, water war
Confession time: I can’t stand to watch the videos of Syrian people suffering and dying from the latest Sarin attack. Since I have asthma, I may very well die gasping for breath, and this particular horror strikes too close to home for me to watch. Here’s Charity Navigator listing their best charities for the Syrian conflict. Or you can give to the UNHCR for Syria.
Anyway, 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, especially with the current regime in the White House?First, I’d suggest rereading my post on the water war. I certainly got some things wrong (for instance, no one knows who first said “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” It wasn’t Mark Twain). But others agree that drought was a big factor (as in this 2015 PNAS article and related coverage in Scientific American). I’ll make the point again, though, that this was self-inflicted on Syria’s part, a classic example of bad governance. Syria, like California, started mining groundwater. When it hit its biggest drought recorded by instruments (2007-2010), the driest provinces ran out of groundwater, people migrated to the cities, and the uprising began in 2011.
This is about both environment and politics. If Syria hadn’t gone for the deep wells, they’d have fewer people, be a somewhat weaker country, and almost certainly not have a civil war. Still, they’re not the only place in this particular trap. California’s there too. Even if our drought is “over,” our groundwater isn’t recharged, and things will get ugly again. There’s some irony (covered by On The Public Record) that Devon Nunes, the feckless head of the House Intelligence Committee and apparent dignity-wraith of the current president, used to be a Big Ag sock puppet in his home district in the San Joaquin Valley. And it’s not just California and Syria. One could look at the beautifully titled “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom: an Assessment of Saudi Arabia’s Experiment in Desert Agriculture,” (pdf link) and their subsequent decision to export water from Arizona in the form of alfalfa for their camels. And Australia’s not in great shape. Nor is China. Or the Aral Basin. Or…you get the picture. But these are all examples of environmental variability exacerbated by politics. When we start mining groundwater, we get into trouble, even though it seems like a good idea at the start (as was mining fossil fuels…).
But back to Syria. It may have started with water, but how much of it is Russia and Iran fighting to have a friendly port in the eastern Mediterranean, how much of it is the Assad regime killing to stay in power at all costs (the great monster model of statecraft, also practiced in places like North Korea and elsewhere), and how much of it is the brutal decision by Assad to depopulate his country to the point where they can live with the water they have? I have no clue. Still, on the last one, Syria had 21.96 million people in 2011, when the war started. Since then, 13.5 million people (61.4%) have fled their homes and are in need of aid, of which 6.6 million are internally displaced, 5 million are refugees in surrounding countries, and about 1 million are refugees in Europe (Source. Note that Amnesty international gives slightly different numbers). And over 400,000 dead maybe. If you believe Amnesty International, the world’s done a crappy job of accepting Syrian refugees and giving money to help them, although again, if you dig into the details (such as Syrians in Saudi Arabia), you get a welter of conflicting stories. If you want a “bright” note, Lebanon currently hosts 2.2 million refugees (about one-third of their current population), while Jordan hosts 1.27 million (about one-quarter of their current population) and Turkey hosts 3 million (in a country of 74 million) (Source. Note again that these numbers don’t quite agree with those linked to above). They’re stepping up to the plate, even if we’re not funding them. Blessings on them for doing their charitable duty.
Back again to Syria and the critical point: if Assad was trying to cut his population in half by killing or driving everyone out, it’s not working very well. He’s decreased his population by less than a quarter, and most of the refugees are still inside the country, where they are a problem for him even if he does nothing to help them. This has implications for other would-be Great Monsters around the world.
Take Steve Bannon, for example. While I don’t know precisely what, if anything, he believes, he’s associated with the idea of the US as a white country (I refuse to capitalize white), and that whites (whoever they are) should make concerted attempts to get rid of everyone else, because the world’s going (or going to be going) down in flames, and it’s every race for himself. Or something like that. Trouble is, killing your way to sustainability doesn’t seem to work very well. The only “advantage” (if something that evil can be called an advantage) is that atrocities on the genocidal scale overwhelm any justice system (as seen in Rwanda), so that it’s the only time when mass murderers can get off relatively lightly. But a final solution it ain’t.
Still, tidal waves of refugees and migrants are a fundamental problem for nation-states. I saw it best put in an 2016 essay in Aeon: “If [a country] could not control their borders or protect their subjects, what claim did they have over the land?” The whole idea of nation-states is a social contract, where the ruled give power to a government that will provide them with protection, justice, and importantly, ownership of their land. That last is an effing nuisance in many ways, but nation-states fall apart without the freehold ownership of land, because so much law is based on who has a right to be where, when, and doing what, and these are all ownership questions. When a nation-state gets flooded with people to the point where they’re squatting, overwhelming the infrastructure and anyone’s ability to keep control, the state is in serious trouble. That’s the looming specter behind climate change, and if we’re having trouble dealing with five million Syrian refugees, even knowing that their ancestors helped create western civilization and produced Steve Jobs, how much worse will it be when Bangladeshis are on the march, or Egyptians, or southern Chinese? And as I already noted, the evidence suggests that authoritarian rulers can’t kill their way out of this crisis, at least not without nukes and probably not even then. However, we still can do a lot of things to prevent crises from boiling over and producing tsunamis of desperate people. Unfortunately, it’s not sufficient to have a disorganized outpouring of emotion and charity: crises this big need massively organized responses. This is where competent governance matters, and it’s a shame we have so little of it at the moment.
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