While the unfolding refugee crisis is taking place against a backdrop of war and other savagery, one of the underlying causes is drought.
As we noted two years ago, the current troubles in Syria were sparked by the worst long-term drought and crop failures since the birth of agricultural civilization in the Fertile Crescent. (More than 4,000 years ago, the armies of Lagash and Umma, city-states near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, went to war after Umma’s king drained an irrigation canal leading from the Tigris.)
The current troubles in Syria were sparked by the worst long-term drought since the birth of civilization in the Fertile Crescent.In our own time, since the water supply began to dry up, Syrian ranchers have lost up to 85 percent of their domestic animals, and farmers can no longer make a living from their collapsing crops.
A few years ago, they began protesting against the waste and mismanagement of water in the cities, especially by the Assad government, which didn’t want to turn the taps off on its supporters. This escalated into violence and then to an ethnic civil war that led to the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria – ISIS.
The situation is only going to get worse. At current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, rainfall is going to decrease ever more drastically in the region, with up to 57 percent more crop failures. As Smithsonian Magazine reports:
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.
Ancient history repeats itself. Last year, in violation of previous agreements, Turkey cut off the flow of water to Syria, and the river now stops at the border between the two countries.
Two years ago, Jay Famiglietti, Professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, wrote that the history of human civilization has always revolved around 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.
What, then, will become of an entire region that depends on a dwindling supply of water and that was cannibalized a century ago by Western powers seeking control of that other vital resource, oil? It is unlikely that Syria’s groundwater resources, and likewise, its food security, will ever recover.
We’ve entered a new era of mass migration that’s turning every species, including our own, into refugees. And the situation can only become more fraught. As resources diminish, people become more fearful and xenophobic. This week, as tens of thousands of people continued to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean and find safety and a new life in northern Europe, they got a chilling welcome from Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as they tried to cross that country:
Let us not forget that those arriving here were raised in a different religion and represent a profoundly different culture. The majority of them are not Christians but Muslims … Europe and European identity are rooted in Christianity … European Christian culture is hardly able to keep Europe within its own Christian system of values. If we fail to keep this in sight, the European idea may be confined to a minority position on its own continent.
No one should be surprised by this kind of language; we hear it in the United States all the time from those who claim we are a “Christian nation” and bluster on about building a Great Wall of America and deporting 11 million people to Mexico. These are the same kind of paranoid “Christian values” that undergirded the ethnic cleansing of Croatians by Serbs in the 1980s, of Jews and Roma by the Nazis in the 30s and 40s, the pogroms of the 19th Century, and the Crusades of medieval times. (What would Jesus have made of these “Christian values”?)
It’s a bit rich for the United States and Europe to be complaining about foreigners taking over their countries. The U.S. and Europe have been doing just that in the Middle East for more than a century, with such paragons of virtue as Winston Churchill leading the charge by redrawing the map of the region, using poison gas to subdue resistance, and setting up tyrants to rule the new countries they’ve created. Catastrophic climate change, mass extinctions, and the breakdown in our international relationships are all interconnected.
In the years since we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of refugees have fled – 4 million from Iraq alone. Of Syria’s 22 million people, 11 million have been displaced. Last year, the U.S. accepted just 400 of them.
And the reason Congress – those same people who voted to invade Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place – says we can’t let refugees in is because they may have been “radicalized”. (Hmm, now how could that have happened?)
There are no simple solutions – maybe no solutions at all – to the problems we have set in motion all over the world: catastrophic climate change, mass extinctions, and what’s looking like a total breakdown in our international human relationships. All these things are interconnected.
Don’t expect the situation to get better in the years ahead. Expect water wars, oil wars, and chickens coming home to roost for all the nations that have been meddling in the Middle East and Africa, not just over the last century, but for thousands of years.