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What Really Sparked the War in Syria

Satellite image showing Syria at focal point of Middle East drought.

It’s horrific, intractable, seemingly endless … and quite possibly the shape of other wars to come.

That’s because what set off the war in Syria wasn’t so much to do with religion and politics and ethnic whatevers. It was about water.

Since 2006, Syria has been suffering a massive drought. According to Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, it’s the worst long-term drought and the most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago.

Smithsonian magazine offers the ancient historical background:

The world’s earliest documented water war happened 4,500 years ago, when the armies of Lagash and Umma, city-states near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, battled with spears and chariots after Umma’s king drained an irrigation canal leading from the Tigris.

“Enannatum, ruler of Lagash, went into battle,” reads an account carved into an ancient stone cylinder, and “left behind 60 soldiers [dead] on the bank of the canal.”

History repeats itself. When Syrian farmers began getting antsy, just a few years ago, about the fact that their wells were drying up, they began protesting about the profligate use of water in the cities.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime was continuing to mismanage the existing water resources, giving water subsidies to the kinds of crops, like wheat and cotton, that use far too much water. According to Femia:

Nearly 75 percent of farmers in the northeast suffered total crop failure. Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their livestock, which affected about 1.3 million people. That was happening before the civil war in Syria broke out.

At the same time, refugees from Iraq and Palestine were pouring in to Syria, and the continuing drought, the heat and other factors all contributed to an explosive situation.

Projections for the future are not good. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, “If current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue, yields of rain-fed crops in Syria will likely decline between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050. That’s a huge number.”

Meanwhile, water has to be trucked in to the massive numbers of refugees sitting in the Jordanian desert with no means of providing for themselves.

The entire Fertile Crescent (a rather optimistic term for a region riddled by drought) is suffering:

In Iraq, the absence of a strong government since 2003, drought and shrinking aquifers have led to a recent spate of assassinations of irrigation department officials and clashes between rural clans. Some experts say that these local feuds could escalate into full-scale armed conflicts.

Since 1975, Turkey’s dam and hydro­power construction has cut water flow to Iraq by 80 percent and to Syria by 40 percent. Syria and Iraq have accused Turkey of hoarding water.

To cope with the drought 4,500 years ago, a treaty was established to end the water war between the nations of Lagash and Umma. It’s inscribed on a cuneiform tablet that now hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris.

Back then, however, the region did not have to cope with the millions of humans who are there today. Nor were sea levels rising to the point where salt water is penetrating what’s left of the aquifers today.

Jay Famiglietti, Professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, notes that the history of human civilization has always revolved around the the availability of water.

While the wealth of many nations of the 21st century allows for greater water security, many countries, like Syria, have none. First, migration to the cities, and then, mass exodus, suggest that Syria as a nation may not recover, at least any time soon. It is unlikely that its groundwater resources, and likewise, its food security, ever will.

Famiglietti says that without a resolution of who gets what water, the war will just grind on. Then again, perhaps war is as good a way as any of just grinding down the population to the point where there’s enough water to go around.

Femia expects to see this problem impacting Egypt before long. And other regions around the world, including the United States, are by no means going to be exempted from the conditions we’re seeing in the troubled Middle East

For more on this, see the interview with Francesco Femia on Bill Moyers’ website, Jay Famigiletti’s post here, and this article in Smithsonian.