A Syrian Lesson for India

The United Nations monitors global weather conditions, population growth, security and refugee populations, and the trends are interconnected in many complex ways. In Syria, severe drought between 2006 and 2010 turned more than half the land into desert, contributing to a vicious civil war: Drought and water shortages led to unemployment, forcing hundreds of thousands into Syria’s cities – many climate refugees – which in turn aggravated sectarian divisions. The government, controlled by a minority sect, extended discriminatory policies to water rights. Nayan Chanda, YaleGlobal’s editor, analyzes for the Times of India the connections as monitored by the United Nations and researchers like Shahrzad Mohtadi for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The response to climate catastrophes is massive migrations, internal and external, that contribute to economic hardship and social unrest. Other countries with poverty, inequality and uneven water supplies should heed the warnings, and prepare with policies that don’t squander essential natural resources. – YaleGlobal

A Syrian Lesson for India

Developing nations should heed warning – Syria’s drought led to mass migration into the cities, climate refugees, that exacerbated sectarian conflicts
Nayan Chanda
Wednesday, September 11, 2013

As some of America's allies reject war as means to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, the world is struggling to comprehend the context for the Assad regime's latest atrocity. Existential struggle born of deep sectarian divide, between Alawites and Sunnis, Druze and Christians in a country carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire certainly provides one explanation.

So too does the contagion-effect of the Arab Spring and regional power struggles. But a deeper analysis may show that it was an environmental catastrophe hitting the country's agricultural belt five years ago that set the Syrian conflict in motion. This largely untold story also holds important lessons for India, which faces similar long-term environmental threats.

The horrors of the Syrian civil war and the death of some 1,00,000 people in the past two years have overshadowed the fact that, for a long time, the country's patchwork of religions and sects had coexisted peacefully. The iron-fisted rule of the Baathist party, accompanied by a secular and open-door policy, provided relative prosperity until a prolonged period of natural calamity and mismanagement unleashed the demons of sectarianism.

In an insightful essay in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a global security scholar, Shahrzad Mohtadi, has explained the deep connection between climate change and political uprising in Syria. Although the country has suffered from occasional rain shortfalls, between 2006 and 2010, it faced an unprecedented drought that turned its northeastern agricultural fields into deserts.

Unable to make a living, over 1.5 million destitute farmers moved to the suburbs of Damascus and other cities, living in makeshift tents and scrounging a living. Massive shortfalls in production turned a net exporter of wheat into a major importer. Food prices skyrocketed, punishing the mostly Sunni farmers who once fed the nation. Their plight, ignored by Syria's Alawite rulers, stoked anger and planted the seeds for conflict.

In March 2011, Syrian security forces in the city of Dara'a aggravated an already tense situation caused by the exodus when they arrested a group of children for scrawling anti-government slogans on a school wall. Dara'a exploded in anger when it emerged that security forces had tortured the children.

The spark ignited in Dara'a quickly spread to the rest of the country, with many destitute Sunni farmers joining the rebels. Unsurprisingly, the suburbs where the rural migrants congregated became sites of protest and later, bombardment by government forces using conventional - and more recently chemical - weapons.

To be sure, the Syrian regime cannot be held responsible for the prolonged drought, which scientists say is most likely related to anthropogenic climate change. But its wrong-headed agricultural policy of promoting water-intensive cotton for exports caused lasting damage to groundwater reserves. Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist who led a seven-year study of Nasa satellite data of the world's underground water, recently said that the "data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second-fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on earth, after India".

In an eerie parallel to Syria's erstwhile wheat and cotton-exporting prowess, India has recently emerged as the world's biggest exporter of rice and second-largest exporter of cotton, both products largely made possible by groundwater irrigation. Already 14.7% of India's groundwater is at a critical stage, which means that extraction levels exceed recharge levels.

Scientists estimate that based on current trends, some 60% of groundwater sources will be in a critical state of degradation within the next two decades. With groundwater depleting at such a rapid pace, India's economic future will return to being dependent on the vicissitudes of the
monsoon rains.

To compare Syria and India for their thoughtless waste of groundwater is not to predict the same outcome, of millions of hungry farmers abandoning their land to unleash civil war. During its 66 years of Independence, the Indian republic has weathered many challenges to its unity and is better equipped to cope with natural calamity today than at any point in the past. But ignoring the challenge of global warming and squandering non-renewable resources today will surely prove a reckless gamble in the future.


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