Syria’s conflict result of long legacy of resource mismanagement

Syrian farmerFailure to deal with over-exploitation of water a key contributor to present civil war

Syria’s failure over decades to deal with calamitous over-exploitation of land and water resources is a direct cause of the present civil war. So argues Francesca de Châtel of Radboud University in the Netherlands. Writing in the journal “Middle Eastern Studies”, she explains how the 2006–10 drought contributed to the start of the conflict.

Syria’s is a semi-arid climate, with 55 % of the country covered in desert and steppe. Drought is a normal occurrence; out of the 50 years from 1961 to 2009 Syria experienced nearly 25 years of drought. “On average, the droughts lasted around four and a half years each, though a drought in the 1970s lasted ten consecutive years.”

The 2006 – 2010 drought hit hardest in the north-east, one of the poorest parts of the country yet also its breadbasket and source of oil. This region has already descended into poverty from 2000, after a series of over-ambitious agricultural development projects overstretched land and water resources.

The latest drought worsened an already catastrophic situation, accelerating trends that had been taking shape for decades. The worst areas suffered a drastic increase in nutrition-related diseases during the period. “In 2010 the UN estimated that 3.7 million people, or 17 per cent of the Syrian population, were food insecure.”

de Châtel argues that a key contributory factor was Syria’s ongoing attempt to improve its access to world markets by broadening its economy from one driven by central planning to a more open-market approach. Between 2006 and 2010, Syria attempted to integrate its economy into the global system and prepare the country for accession to the WTO.

Necessary to these moves was an abolition of many agricultural subsidies. However, following the cuts, particularly the abolition of diesel fuel subsidies in 2009, the agricultural sector lost much of its ability to cope with successive water crises (diesel engines powered the water-extraction pumps that many farmers relied upon for irrigation).

Farmers and herders from the north-east massively abandoned their land (UN agencies estimate around 300,000 people) and migrated to urban areas in search of work. As a result, some areas have seen 60–70 % of their villages abandoned since 2009.

The problem has been exacerbated by Syria’s failure to be open about developing critical shortages of water, she maintains. Syrian state media has largely failed to discuss issues of water shortage, falling groundwater levels or the consequences of drought, except in very general terms of climate change. Foreign media has since 2009 been largely unable to visit the countryside.

Syria considers its water sector to be a strategic resource and therefore subject to national-security constraints, a convenient way of avoiding too much probing into official incompetence or corruption. As a result, accurate and up-to-date information on water availability and use is not available.

However, she says, this official blindness has festered to the point where water has become a taboo that is not discussed, even within government. “The idea that water is, and should remain, ‘sensitive’ goes unquestioned.” Which makes any proper analysis of the true state of Syria’s water situation impossible.

The consequences of such government policy are shown all too clearly in the potentially disastrous depletion of the country’s groundwater. Widespread over-extraction by boring hundreds of new wells to irrigate expanded agriculture have lead in some areas to a drop of up to 100 metres in groundwater levels between the 1950s and 2000, a situation that is not only unsustainable but potentially calamitous.

Fifty years of mismanagement and over-extraction of vital water resources has lead directly to growing disenfranchisement and discontent in Syria’s rural communities, she says. “The 2006–10 drought exacerbated an already existing humanitarian crisis. The government’s failure to adequately respond to this crisis was one of the triggers of the protests that started in March 2011, along with a host of political, economic and social grievances.”

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One Comment

  1. Dai Richards

    very interesting analysis. Too often, wars are reported without any examination of their deeper causes, leading peace plans to disregard those deep-seated problems.

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