by : Melhem Mansour
Based on our work with UNDP and the Syrian State Planning Commission, the areas who are most affected by draughts and those which are part of the least developed areas in the country are the areas affected by the current conflict.
In the time when The Syrian government started a national poverty reduction plan and at the time when the State Ministry of Environmental Affairs started to respond to climate change challenges in the country, a new challenge has raised since March 2011. In March 2011, what so called “Syrian Revolution” has started and spread quickly all over the country. The revolution with its peaceful character developed into a violent conflict just few months later. Unfortunately, environment was the first direct easy target and victim of this conflict by both the Syrian military and armed groups.
The increase of the violent conflict made it harder for the Syrian government to respond to the new climate change challenges forcing many adaptation projects to cease in many climate- affected places across the country. In addition, because of the sanctions, Syrian officials and representatives of the national climate change committee were unable to travel to attend events and capacity building activities which would help them to lead the national climate action plans effectively. It is important to mention that the Syrian opposition was not capable of dealing with climate change challenges and focused only on the political transition with no practical work on ground to address the climate change impact in the areas affected by the conflict and were under the control of opposition groups.
As a result, lack of knowledge about climate change issues and expertise among the opposition groups made it worse in the areas controlled by them and made it obvious that grass roots people are unable to adopt for the impact of climate change.
Water Issues, crop-failure and displacement
Most of areas affected by the conflict in Syria are rural agricultural areas producing wheat, barely, and cotton and sugar beet or potato, pastures with sheep herds, and farms.
40% of agriculture lands were affected by the conflict and there was shocking decrease in the productions of the agriculture lands threating the food security in the country especially that Syria was a leading producing country for cotton and wheat.
From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR), of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast province of Hassakeh (but also in the south), “nearly 75 percent…suffered total crop failure”. Herders in the northeast lost around 85% of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people.
The human and economic costs are enormous. In 2009, the UN and IFRC reported that over 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood as a result of the droughts. By 2011, the aforementioned GAR report estimated that the number of Syrians who were left extremely “food insecure” by the droughts sat at about one million. The number of people driven into extreme poverty is even worse, with a UN report from last year estimating two to three million people affected.
This has led to a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. Last January, it was reported that crop failures (particularly the Halaby pepper) just in the farming villages around to leave for the cities.” In October 2010, the New York Times highlighted a UN estimate that 50,000 families migrated from rural areas just that year, “on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled in earlier years.” In context of Syrian cities coping with influxes of Iraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion in 2003, this has placed addition-al strains and tensions on an already stressed and disenfranchised population ending up with real urban challenges and increasing stress over the use of water and power.
Impact on the biodiversity in the country:
Other important impact of the war on the environment in Syria was the destruction of national reserves and parks where animals and birds were endangered. In addition many rare plants were documented to be officially lost because of the war. The continuous attacks on power plants cut off power forcing thousands of households to search for alternative methods to use energy at homes including the old traditional methods such as using wood. After 4 years of conflict, forest size was dramatically decreased because of indiscriminate logging. We add as well the climate change factor because already in dry season, Syrian forests were vulnerable for massive fires.
Many oil fields in eastern and north eastern parts of the country are currently under the control of different armed groups who started to random refining of the oil. In addition, using chemical and internationally band weapons caused different levels of air pollution for air and water across conflict areas affecting humans as much as plants and animals.
Climate change, natural resource mismanagement, and demographics
The reasons for the collapse of Syria’s farmland are a complex interplay of variables, including climate change, natural resource mismanagement, and demographic dynamics.
A study published in October 2011 at the Journal of Climate found strong and observable evidence that the recent prolonged period of drought in the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East is linked to climate change. More importantly, the study also found worrying agreement between observed climate impacts, and future projections from climate models. A recent model of climate change impacts on Syria conducted by IFPRI, for example, projects that if current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions continue; yields of rain-fed crops in the country may decline “between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.”
This problem has been compounded by poor governance. The Syrian government has combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria’s natural re-sources, which have contributed to water shortages and land desertification. Based on short-term assessments during years of relative plenty, the government has heavily subsidized water-intensive wheat and cotton farming, and encouraged inefficient irrigation techniques. In the face of both climate and human-induced water shortages, farmers have sought to increase supply by turning to the country’s groundwater resources, with Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center reporting an in-crease in wells tapping aquifers from “just over 135,000 in 1999 to more than 213,000 in 2007.” This pumping “has caused groundwater levels to plummet in many parts of the country, and raised significant concerns about the water quality in remaining aquifer stocks.”
Moreover, the over-grazing of land and a rap-idly growing population has compounded the land desertification process. As previously fertile lands turn to dust, farmers and herders have had no choice but to move elsewhere, starve, or demand change.
Internal displacement, rural disaffection and political unrest
Massive internal displacements from rural to urban areas, and significant discontent among agriculture-dependent communities, are ill-explored factors of both social and political unrest in Syria.
Rural-to- urban population movements throughout the course of the recent droughts have placed significant strains on Syria’s economically depressed cities, which incidentally have their own water infrastructure deficiencies. Poor have been forced to compete with poor not just for scarce employment opportunities due to the war, but for access to water resources as well. According to the director of the Water department in Syria, the country entered officially the water poverty line this year with massive increase in water shortage due to climate issues combined with the impact of war and conflict.
The reaction of the international community was mostly focusing on the political negotiation in addition to the relief and humanitarian aid with poor concern on other important issues including social, environmental, and climatic drivers of the unrest. Therefore, integrating climate change issues in peace negotiations and any current efforts to resolve the conflict in the country is important to policy-makers and opinion leaders fashion more responsible actions. In the short-term, stopping the violence and enhancing the likelihood of legitimate government will require a smart assessment of the needs and demands of the new challenging situation in the country, including those involving access to and management of vital natural resources, such as food, water and arable land. In the long-term, addressing the full gamut of Syria’s societal, environmental and climatic ills will be critical for ensuring a resilient, free and conflict-proof nation – one that can constructively engage in the international community. The coming Cop in Lima must be an opportunity to address the new challenge of climate change impact in conflict affected areas. War and Peace must be an important element in the climate change negotiations. Without sustainable peace local communities will continue suffering climate change impact with limited access to adaptation opportunities.
It is important to notice that
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