The link between climate change and violent conflict has been thrown about often, but a recent study is the first to support this hypothesis with qualitative evidence. US researchers found that widespread droughts and increased temperatures amplified an already heightened state of unrest in Syria, which may have triggered the civil war still raging on today.

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Photo: AP

Between 2006-2010, an unprecedented drought spree forced Syria, once a major food basket in the middle East, to import food. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were forced to leave their lands and flocked to the cities, which where already crowded with roughly a million refugees from neighboring Iraq. In 2013, NASA published a study where it outlined that Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins had lost 144 cubic kilometers of freshwater, the second most accelerated water depletion in the world – the first being India.

Coupled with an already tense situation given corrupt leadership,  inequality, massive population growth and the revolutionary wave known as the Arab Spring, the stage was set for massive civil unrest which turned into a civil war. Some 80,000 lives have been claimed so far in Syria, according to the UN. To make matters worse, half the country is now under ISIS control.

The study found that natural variability alone could not account for the trends in wind, rain and heat that ultimately caused the drought. Mixed with high unemployment and neighboring turmoil, this plunged Syria into war. Of course, the study does not imply that climate change caused the Syrian war, but rather that it is an important factor which contributed to the situation we’re seeing today. Acknowledging this is not a singular situation, world governments should pay more attention to climate variables, especially in the vulnerable Middle East.

“Being able to, in a specific region, draw this story line together we think is pretty significant,” says study co-author Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The entire world needs to be planning for a drier future in that area. And there will be lots of global implications.”

Of course, scientists have argued for years that rising temperatures are linked with civil unrest. Discussions up until now have been speculative to various degrees. This study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first, however, that builds on a collection of results and provides qualitative evidence.

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”. Last year, I reported  a study which collected data spanning across hundreds of years, which also suggests there’s a link even between seemingly small changes in temperature and conflict.  For instance, political instability and warfare and linked to widespread and lasting droughts around A.D. 900 in lands near the Pacific, which eventually brought the demise of Maya empire. Decades of drought interspersed with intense monsoon rains collapsed the Khmer empire (modern day Cambodia) in the 14th century. Can governments still afford to ignore the climate ?

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