It’s routinely claimed that climate-change-induced drought in Syria was a major factor in triggering the Syrian civil war, the Syrian refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS. But are these claims supported by the data? This post investigates this question.
We begin with this quote from a Climate and Security article, which claims that the recent drought in Syria was the worst in Syria’s long history and is not alone in doing so:
From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago” …… This has led to a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. Last January, it was reported that crop failures ….. just in the farming villages around the city of Aleppo, had led 200,000 rural villagers to leave for the cities.
Now look at Figure 1, which shows the GHCNv2 annual rainfall record for Aleppo (data from KNMI Climate Explorer). Average annual rainfall during the 2006-2011 period was only 9% lower than average annual rainfall over the preceding 55 years. The driest year during the period (2011) was only the seventh driest on record and 2006-2011 was only the 13th driest six-year period on record. Clearly the crop failures in the farming villages around Aleppo – which undoubtedly occurred – weren’t caused by a drought of Biblical proportions. In fact there doesn’t seem to have been a drought at Aleppo at all:
Figure 1: GHCN v2 monthly rainfall record, Aleppo. The graphic is as it appears on Climate Explorer except for the added shading
But Aleppo is a single data point in a large country. What happened elsewhere?
First we will look at the rainfall data from other stations in Syria to see if there were rainfall deficiencies that could have contributed to crop failures in other areas. Figure 2 shows the locations of the seven stations in Syria with GHCNv2 rainfall records going back to the 1950s relative to the distribution of cropland. They give fairly good country-wide coverage:
Figure 2: Stations with rainfall records in cropland areas
Figure 3 shows the annual rainfall records for the seven stations with the “drought years” highlighted as before. Average rainfall over 2006-2011 was below the pre-2006 average at four stations (Deir Ezzor -31%, Palmyra -22%, Lattakia -17% and Aleppo -9% as already discussed ) but above it at three (Kamishli +3%, Damascus +5% and Hama +15%). The average for all seven stations was 7% below the pre-2006 average, decreasing to 4% when only the five “cropland” stations (Lattakia, Aleppo, Kamishi, Hama and Damascus) are considered:
Figure 3: GHCN v2 rainfall records for Kamishli, Lattakia, Hama, Damascus, 2006-2011 period highlighted in yellow
Decreases of only 4-7% in average annual rainfall clearly don’t qualify as drought conditions, but there is of course more to drought than just rainfall. To get a true indication of drought intensity we must look at the Palmer drought severity index (PDSI), which takes other factors such as soil moisture content and temperature into account, and a paper by Al Riffai et al (2012) provides annual PDSI estimates between 1960 and 2009 for each of the five “agroecolocial” zones shown in Figure 4:
Figure 4: Agroeconomic zones in Syria, Figure 1 of Al Riffai et al, 2012
Comparing this map with Figure 2 shows that crops are grown only in and around Zones 1, 2, 3 and 4 (5 is desert), so if drought caused widespread crop failures it must have affected these four zones. Figure 5 shows Al Riffai et al’s self-calibrating PDSI index for the four zones between 1960 and 2009, with the 2006-2009 period highlighted in yellow. Note that negative values indicate drier conditions:
Figure 5: Drought Index values, agroeconomic zones 1, 2, 3 and 4, modified from Figure 3 of Al Riffai et al, 2012
The post-2006 drought is visible only as abrupt downward spikes in 2008 in Zones 3 and 4 and as a weaker downward spike in the same year in Zone 1. But none of these spikes, reaches the minus 4 “extreme” PDSI drought threshold and none of them are the lowest values since 1960. Moreover, Zone 2 is shown to have recovered from a drought after 2006. These results also lend no support to the claims that Syria suffered severe and widespread drought after 2006.
I am aware of just one piece of observational evidence that allegedly supports the drought claim. In a 2011 paper by Hoerling et al. NOAA presents this map, reproduced here as Figure 6. It shows areas of rainfall deficiency over Syria and other parts of the Mediterranean and is often presented as supporting evidence for the Syrian drought:
Figure 6: Observed cold season precipitation changes for period 1970-2010 minus 1902-1970, from Figure 1 of Hoerling et al 2011.
But what the map shows is the “observed change in cold season precipitation for the period 1971-2000 minus 1902-70”. It tells us nothing about what happened in Syria between 2006 and 2011. It does imply that droughts in and around the Mediterranean are more common than they used to be, and maybe they are. The IPCC, however, gave this no more than a “likely” (66% probability) ranking in the AR5, while at the same time admitting that the Mediterranean is the only place on the planet other than West Africa where any observational evidence for an uptrend in droughts can be detected.
That concludes the presentation of data relating to the Syrian drought, or at least the data I have been able to find in the time available. The results demonstrate that there was no unusually severe drought in Syria between 2006 and 2011 and quite likely no drought at all. This effectively ends the discussion. If there was no drought then the climate change = drought = civil war = ISIS chain of reasoning falls apart.
Nevertheless the fact remains that a substantial proportion of Syria’s crops did fail during the “drought years”, and having demonstrated that it wasn’t drought that caused them to fail it’s desirable to spend a little time addressing the question of what did.
Syria grows a wide range of crops and it’s impossible to review them all, but the main crop is wheat so we will use that as an example. Figure 7 shows Syria’s total annual wheat production and its per-capita wheat production since 1960 (data from FAO). Between 2006 and 2008 wheat production decreased by a factor of two and per-capita production fell back to the lowest level since 1989. This was the largest decrease in Syria’s history, although not the first. Wheat production also fell substantially between 1998 and 1999, in this case at least partly as a result of a drought (see Figure 5).
Figure 7: Syria’s total and per-capita wheat production, 1961-2012
And if drought wasn’t the cause what was? There have been two historic contributors. First was Syria’s skyrocketing population, which more than quadrupled from 4.7 million to 22.1 million between 1961 and 2012. Second was Syria’s government, which in an attempt to keep up with population growth encouraged rapid development of irrigated croplands beginning in the 1980s (according to FAO data Syria’s irrigated cropland increased by 70%, from 693,000 to 1,180,000 hectares, between 1990 and 1995 alone, which explains the large increase in wheat production over this period seen in Figure 7). Climate and Security summarizes the problems thus:
Based on short-term assessments during years of relative plenty, the government has heavily subsidized water-intensive wheat and cotton farming, and encouraged inefficient irrigation techniques. In the face of both climate and human-induced water shortages, farmers have sought to increase supply by turning to the country’s groundwater resources, with Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center reporting an increase in wells tapping aquifers from “just over 135,000 in 1999 to more than 213,000 in 2007.” This pumping “has caused groundwater levels to plummet in many parts of the country, and raised significant concerns about the water quality in remaining aquifer stocks.” On top of this, the over-grazing of land and a rapidly growing population have compounded the land desertification process. As previously fertile lands turn to dust, farmers and herders have had no choice but to move elsewhere, starve, or demand change.
But while these factors undoubtedly contributed the event that probably contributed most to the 2008 crop failures was Bashar Assad’s 2005 “liberalization” of the Syrian economy, which caused a near-tripling of the price of diesel between 2007 and 2008 and made it “nearly impossible for many cultivators to keep their irrigation pumps running, much less to transport produce to the cities” (sources here and here). I haven’t checked any further, but if this is why Syria’s crops failed then Obama, Kerry, Pope Francis et al. are calling for global action on climate change because Assad hiked diesel prices in Syria eight years ago.
A final question is whether the migration of destitute Syrian farmers to the cities triggered the Syrian uprising. Few actually claim it did. The claim is usually that the migration contributed to it, and with destitute farmers crowding Syria’s cities it probably did, eventually. But millions of destitute people crowd cities all over the world without rising up, and in all probability there would have been no uprising in Syria either had it not been for the Arab Spring, which provided the trigger. This quote from Timelines Syria makes this clear:
2011 Feb 1, Syrians were reported organizing campaigns on Facebook and Twitter calling for a “day of rage” in Damascus on Feb 4-5, taking inspiration from Egypt and Tunisia in using social networking sites to rally their followers for sweeping political reforms.
The quote also strongly suggests that the destitute farmers, who would have been unlikely to participate in Facebook and Twitter campaigns, were not the instigators of the uprising.
We have established that there was no drought of any unusual significance in Syria between 2006 and 2011, that climate change did not cause the crop failures which resulted in millions of farmers fleeing to the cities or that they triggered the Syrian uprising when they got there. The claim that refugees from Syria are in any way, shape or form “climate refugees” is therefore entirely without foundation, as is the claim that man-made climate change had anything to do with the Syrian civil war or the rise of ISIS.
Yet articles of the sort that recently appeared in the National Observer keep on coming. This particular article begins like this:
This is what a climate refugee looks like
And follows up thus:
A policeman tenderly scoops up the corpse of a small child on a desolate beach and within hours the image is an icon of grief and suffering around the world. The child was three-year old Alan Kurdi, who fled with his family from Syria’s bloody civil war, joining millions of others seeking a new life abroad, victims of war, dictatorship, and a climate disaster that began nearly a decade ago.
Climate alarmists are becoming progressively more strident, unscientific and indecorous in their attempts to get their message across to a largely disinterested public, but this surely marks a new low.