Putting the life back in science fiction

Syria, Part II

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.




10 Comments so far
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Worth considering alternative scenarios to “Assad did it”


Comment by Ian

Considering? Yes. Believing? Not so much. The problem (as laid out on In The Pipeline a long time ago is that Sarin’s this obnoxious little molecule that has a fluorine linked to a phosphorus, and that means that you need to use hot hydrofluoric acid to make it. And if you don’t want mass casualties among your chemists, you need a specially built chemical plant to make the stuff in quantity. That rules out ISIL, but we know Syria was making it in quantity. They’re the likeliest suspect. And no, you can’t make sarin in a kitchen. Even Aum Shinrikyo built a $30 million three-story production facility to make their gas.

As for a US wag the dog, why bother? That leaves an evidence trail. This is more like the Reichstag Match Factory theory I talked about a couple of weeks ago: basically, all you have to do is to get ready to capitalize on atrocity(ies) and then wait for it or them to happen. Assad’s not letting up, so if the current president wants to look tough, all he has to do is wait for an atrocity, warn the Russians so they don’t over-react, then let fly with tough action. Problem solved.

Comment by Heteromeles

Interesting post. I hadn’t read elsewhere that killing your own population was a goal to solve national water crises.

In all my years on this planet, I don’t think there has ever been that much real effort to help populations devasted by disease or hunger. We seem to make a lot of noise and show sympathy, but anything that might require some impact on our lives is rejected.

Even within countries, relief usually falls far short of that needed. The US is particularly egregious, spending vast sums on the military, but negligible amounts on disaster relief or foreign aid.

Comment by Alexander Tolley

It is, of course, speculation on my part that Assad is trying to reduce his population. Still, it makes some sense, given that he’s a minority president who is not supported by most of his extremely polyglot country. His persistence in attacking hospitals, for instance, would be counter-productive if all he was trying to do was reassert control, since the state is supposed to protect and help its citizens, not just parasitize them.

Comment by Heteromeles

Leila Al Schami describes the evictions from former rebel strongholds after Assads troops move in:


My interpretation is that Assad is driving non-loyal people into rebel held areas (where they don’t bother him), is separating non-loyal communities to weaken them & rewarding loyal fighters with real estate as well as ensuring that streatgic important areas are inhabited by loyalists.

The mass murder is IMO an attempt to intimidate a population he knows he cannot reign through their consent. Consider Assad I reaction to a Muslim Brotherhood led uprising in Hama – a massacre with maybe up to 40.000 deaths.

Comment by martin089

Israeli desalination

I haven’t seen anything about whether graphene membranes might require less energy.

Comment by nancylebovitz

re graphene membranes, or rather sieves – the thermodynamic minimum for seawater desalination is 2.78 kJ/l fresh water, current membrane plants need about 11 kJ/l.

Newer better membranes or sieves could sit between those values. If I understood the relevant chapter in this IWA trend report from a while back correctly, the hot topics in (non thermal) seawater desalination are better fouling resistance in membranes, better fouling resistance by working with tricks like forward osmosis, and novel membranes (like graphene) that happen to be more fouling resistant. The IWA also has a working group on biofilms, they bother themselves among other things with fouling of membranes.
IWA trend report:

Click to access IWA_GlobalTrendReport2016.pdf

note that I’m by no means a desalination or membrane or sieve expert.

Comment by martin089

Neither am I. I remember a report years ago in Chemical and Engineering News that there were some possibly breakthrough technologies dating from back into the 1980s that died from lack of interest at that time in improving desalination. In any case (and if that’s your thing), you can have a lot of fun searching past articles in C&EN on desalination (http://pubs.acs.org/iapps/wld/cen/results.html?line3=desalination). They have quite a lot of them. Electroshock desalination? It might be a thing one day.

Comment by Heteromeles

There’s a thing called the “hoofbeats of the zebra” syndrome that’s the opposite of Occam’s Razor. It’s always worth being careful of that, especially when building conspiracy theories.

One general problem, when you go down the rabbit hole of figuring out what was in a soil sample, is that soil itself is chemically complex and poorly known in some regards, and stuff tends to stick to clay particles rather well (I actually have a soils science minor). Without knowing how a particular lab processed a particular soil sample and without knowing the characteristics of the soil itself, it’s hard to say whether the absence of particular “fingerprint” chemicals is due to them being genuinely absent or whether the lab didn’t do the extraction correctly. In general, what they’re reportedly looking for is either a) evidence of breakdown chemicals, to confirm it was sarin, b) evidence of stabilizing chemicals, because sarin is very unstable (which would indicate that they came from a stored munition), or c) evidence of intermediates from the sarin-making process and contaminants from the feedstock chemicals, which would indicate the sarin was created up under “primitive” conditions. Note that primitive is relative here, because you’ve still got to work with HF to make sarin, and too much carelessness leads to traces of dead chemists.

The bottom line is to not over-analyze the chemical results, especially if they require some complex conspiracy to explain. That’s where the “hoofbeats of the zebra” come in.

As for the US involvement, basically Syria is a no-win for us. We can fight ISIL because it’s a descendant of Al Qaeda, which we are at war with. We can allegedly do stuff to enforce the chemical weapons “ban” we tried to put into place earlier. We can try to support moderate parties in either violent or non-violent opposition, although they’ve proved so unorganized that neither has been effective (there’s an interesting anecdote on this in Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution, which is worth reading on its own account). We can also start WWIII with the Russians by invading Syria, and there’s no particular reason to do this.

If you want a prediction, the US isn’t going to do much more than fire a few very expensive missiles to disrupt the chemical attacks, and continue to fight ISIL using very expensive planes. The expensive part is critical, because the US military has to justify that 10% increase in its budget under the current administration, so expensive munitions and plane strikes that don’t risk US lives are the way for them to go. The current president wants to look tough to counter his utter lack of military experience, so expect him to go for his usual BS and bully routine, aimed at Syria and North Korea (Obama and Clinton did the same thing). He also wants to look like he’s not a Russian sock puppet, so expect maybe one or two more gestures in that direction. Beyond this, the Syrian civil war will continue.

The problem is figuring out when the war will end, and that’s where water matters. I don’t know how many people Syria can support right now (I doubt anybody does), and that goes double in the north and northeast. Rainfall is generally decreasing in Syria (though not so badly as in Iraq), the chance of severe drought is increasing (source), and one million climate refugees moving from farms to cities was enough to trigger the 2010 uprising. Now they’ve got 6.5 million internal refugees, the remnants of ISIL in the north, and a bigger problem. I’d strongly suggest that if there’s not enough rain and river water to support the remaining Syrians, the war will not end. But what that amount of water is (and how often rain will fall below that), I don’t know right now, and it’s quite possible that no one does. In this situation, Assad may simply keep being a monster until no one fights him, at which point he pulls as Kim Jong Un and establishes death camps or the equivalent. We’ll see.

Comment by Heteromeles

I just listened to your interview on legalize-freedom.com and was impressed. However, your take on Assad in Syria seems irrational. As you know, Syria is not alone in failing to comprehend their environmental situation so it would be interesting to hear your take on the Saudi campaign in Yemen.

Comment by kev4321

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