Heated Conflict: Redefining Refugees

Before the drought, I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water. Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters,” said former Syrian well-digger Kemal Ali. “Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” Beginning approximately at the start of 2007 and lasting until 2010, Syria found itself locked in the grips of the worst drought the area had seen in over 900 years. Rural families, businesses, farmers, and workers who all relied on water for their livelihoods — such as Kemal Ali — suddenly found themselves at the mercy of the climate, forced to dig up to nearly half a mile into the ground in order to get the water they required to survive. For many impoverished or financially burdened families, this proved to be impossible. Even those with the means to reach water — such as Ali, who owned a heavy-duty pipe driver and a truck to transport it — found it nearly impossible to locate. Ali’s business eventually fell apart and he is now a refugee living in Greece.

Today, there is a steadily growing consensus in the scientific community that the drought in Syria was certainly exacerbated and intensified by anthropogenic climate change, or climate change that originates from some form of human activity. Scientists have named the current geological age the Anthropocene — the age of humans as the primary drivers of climate change. In recent years the effects of this new environmental dynamic have become more prominent and harder to ignore. A study published in January 2015 linked climate change to the Syrian drought, and the drought to the ongoing conflicts taking place there. The implications of this are enormous, raising concerns about future droughts, conflicts, and the emergence of climate change refugees. The world needs to treat what’s happening in Syria as a wake-up call to put plans in place in order to be better equipped to handle similar situations in the future, and to try and prevent further anthropogenic harm to the climate.

The ongoing conflict in Syria is complex, and the relation of the drought to the conflict only complicates matters. When current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was first elected in July 2000, he made changes to the country’s agricultural policy. Loosening restrictions in some areas and deregulating in others, he opened up new regions for intensive farming. While temporarily economically beneficial, the practices were not sustainable: After years of agriculture being a central part of Syria’s economy — accounting for 25 percent of GDP in 2003 — the poorly planned policies drove the nation’s water table to the brink of destruction. Essentially, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime (and his father’s before him) perfectly set the stage for environmental disaster to strike. When the 2007 drought hit, it decimated the already crippled remains of the country’s water supply, destroying the livelihoods of many and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees. The government, however, did not seem to help. Faten, a Syrian woman who grew up in northern farmlands, recounts, “They didn’t do anything. We asked for help, but they didn’t care. They didn’t care about this subject. Never, never. We had to solve our problems ourselves.” After the revolution took off following the arrest of protesters in March of 2011, many Syrians rushed to join, enraged by the regime’s inaction during their plight.

As stated before, the conflict was not caused solely by the drought, but rather by a large variety of factors all converging at once. The full weight and complexity of the conflict is best summarized by foreign affairs expert Thomas Friedman, who writes, “it’s what happens when an extreme weather event, the worst drought in Syria’s modern history, combines with a fast-growing population and a repressive and corrupt regime and unleashes extreme sectarian and religious passions, fueled by money from rival outside powers — Iran and Hezbollah on one side, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the other, each of which have an extreme interest in its Syrian allies’ defeating the other’s allies — all at a time when America, in its post-Iraq/Afghanistan phase, is extremely wary of getting involved.” The conflict is complex and does not have one single root cause, but rather many interlocking reasons.

The idea that droughts cause discord and conflict is nothing new. In fact, many researchers now believe that droughts contributed greatly to the decline of the ancient Roman Empire. While society is now far more technologically advanced than it was during the time of the Roman Empire, the empire itself was large enough, powerful enough, and supported enough people to be used as a model for comparison to today. First, a research team led by Ulf Büntgen of Switzerland did a comprehensive study of the patterns of drought and climate variability throughout the past 2,500 years of European history through a complex analysis of tree rings. The team first compared climate and weather data from the past 200 years to living trees, to establish the baseline for how temperature and moisture affect tree ring formation. Using this baseline, they then analyzed the tree rings of various samples of wood from the past 2,500 years. What they found was logical, yet nonetheless remarkable; in an extremely historically consistent way, periods filled with warm weather and significant rainfall — in other words, conducive to agricultural growth — were socially stable and thriving, while periods of droughts were rife with conflict and discord. The reason for this is simple: Water is a necessity for life, and when it disappears, people take drastic steps in order to obtain it. With that being said, it should be noted that most researchers agree that droughts do not typically cause a conflict by themsleves, but rather escalate preexisting ones.

A second study, conducted by Utrecht University, complements Büntgen’s and helps to explain why the Roman Empire should be an example for today. While certainly not as extensive as those now in place, the Romans held and maintained a vast and complex network of supply chains, ensuring that every city was as supplied as it needed to be. However, this was a double-edged sword. Over time their cities became fully reliant upon imports, and when they stopped coming in, urban centers had no agricultural infrastructure of their own to meet their vast needs. Furthermore, typically well-supplied cities acted as a pull factor for migrants, the abundance of food encouraging them to travel there. But in times of drought and famine these effects were amplified even further, increasing the amount of food required to feed the city, while reducing the incoming flow of goods. As political tensions grew and invasions began in the wake of the drought, the Roman Empire was weakened and eventually fell.

The same patterns and tendencies exhibited in the ancient Roman Empire can be seen today. Globalization is comparable to the supply chains of the Roman Empire — just on steroids. Together, the modern forces of globalization and urbanization have worked to create a world of cities reliant on the importation of food. While this does not mean that the world is facing a global collapse, Rome serves as an example and warning of how the stage is set for conflict and upheaval when the flow of food begins to wane. Syria fits the paradigm as well. Poor agricultural policy — mainly the over-farming of land — led to the decline of available groundwater. When the 2007-2010 drought hit, it decimated all that was left, creating the near half-mile gap between the surface and groundwater that destroyed Kemal Ali’s livelihood.

However, there is a major difference between the days of the Roman Empire and today: the cause and intensity of the droughts. The drought that helped lead to the decline of the Roman Empire was a random occurrence — a freak catastrophe comparable to an earthquake or heavy snowstorm. Today’s droughts, by contrast, have been steadily worsening and increasing in frequency in unprecedented ways due to anthropogenic changes. The most cited study linking climate change to the conflict in Syria states, “The strong agreement between observations and climate model simulations in century-long trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure adds confidence to the conclusion that in this region, the anthropogenic precipitation signal has already begun to emerge from the natural ‘noise’ and that the recent drought had a significant anthropogenic component. It also implies that model future projections of continued drying for Syria and the Fertile Crescent are reliable.” In essence, the study concludes that the recent drought would not have been anywhere near as dramatic and damaging as it was if it weren’t for anthropogenic climate change. Not only that, but the trend suggests that this effect will only increase in the future, both regionally and globally.

It is time for the United Nations and the world community to consider and discuss a new definition for refugees, one that includes those who are being displaced as a result of climate change.

When all of these factors are considered together, a scary picture is painted of the future. Aside from the indifference of the world toward halting climate change, one of the most alarming and problematic aspects of climate change that the drought in Syria serves as a warning of is the prospect of vastly increased numbers of refugees in coming years. Currently, the United Nations Refugee Agency defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Looking at the Roman Empire and Syria, a number of important questions are raised. The UN definition for a refugee does not include those who are displaced from their homes due to climate change. As of now, there is no system in place to help them find shelter or refuge in countries other than the one they are currently residing in. Instead, when climate-induced droughts hit, they flock to the nearest city. In Syria, where tensions and conflicts had already been bubbling beneath the surface, the influx of people fleeing drought contributed to the escalation of violence and outright civil war. Leaving rural areas for cities is not helpful when the cities are also being damaged by the ongoing drought.

It is time for the United Nations and the international community to consider and discuss a new definition of refugees, one that includes those who being displaced as a result of climate change. Without a new definition, a system cannot be put in place to help those whose livelihoods and homes are being destroyed by climate change to an unprecedented degree. As a result of this international policy gap, conflicts around the world are escalating due to dwindling resources and overcrowding. While this should by no means stop or halt efforts to deal with the issue of climate change itself, the problem of how to deal with climate change refugees is arguably more answerable through international agreements and treaties than efforts to actually fix climate change itself. The industrialized and democratic world needs to take action. Countries such as the United States, despite being one of the largest drivers of anthropogenic climate change, are not feeling the effects to anywhere near the same degree as nations such as Syria. These nations have a moral responsibility to take action, and must do so with great haste.