Credit: data.unhcr.org

Since 2006, record-breaking drought has plagued Syria—with devastating consequences for their agriculture and the people who depend on it. The government hasn’t helped: it actually made it harder for the farmers to cope. New well permits needed to increase irrigation could only be obtained by bribing officials with funds that most poor farmers just didn’t have.

By 2008, a quarter of a million farmers had been forced to abandon their farms (Oweis, 2009). By 2014, that number grew to 1.5 million farmers who have abandoned their land due to crop failure, migrating either to the cities or to other nearby countries (Wendle, 2015).

Where did all these people go? To cities, or other nearby countries: most of which were already struggling with a growing population, high unemployment rates, corrupt government, and ethnic, religious and political tension. For a country such as Syria to be able to cope with the effects of climate change, they need to “unpack the camel”, relieving some of these other sources of stress.

In March 2016, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and sociologist Cristina Bradatan teamed up to talk about the refugee crisis that is overwhelming Europe and the Middle East, and the role that drought and climate change played in exacerbating it. This talk was part of our ongoing Science by the Glass series. This local Lubbock event is open to the public, and is held from 5-7pm on the second Tuesday of each month at the Fox and Hound on 82nd St.

When we look at the news, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on: some sources blame climate change for everything that’s happened in Syria, while others say the two issues are completely unrelated. According to the data, Katharine said, the reality is right in the middle: climate change did not cause the crisis, but it did make an already unstable situation worse. She compared the situation to that of an already overloaded camel. Climate change and the fact that it had made the ensuing drought three times more likely than it would have been a hundred years ago were simply the “last straw on the camel’s back” that tipped an already stressed country—home to 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, soaring food prices, and overcrowded cities—into the current disaster (Wendle, 2015).

Severe weather events, such as drought, bring more scarcity. This in turn creates even more refugees. Ethnic, racial and religious differences can also increase instability, Cristina pointed out. Those who have more resources move out first, taking advantage of international connections and skills that help them find work elsewhere in the world. When the poor do leave, they are more likely to travel a shorter distance, often to the next country over, usually to other poor and vulnerable areas (Henry, 2004).

Climate refugees are a new and rapidly growing challenge. Here in the U.S., coastal communities from Louisiana to Alaska are being forced to relocate as sea levels rise and permafrost thaws.

Around the world, it’s estimated that 200 million people could be displaced by 2050 as a direct result of human-induced climate change (IOM, n.d.). Where will they go?

The Science by the Glass discussion ended with a personal perspective from Tarek Kandakji, a geoscience graduate student at Tech and native of Syria. Tarek’s family was able to flee to Jordan when Tarek was young. He confirmed the connection between the drought, widespread government corruption, and the threat posed by ISIS to Syria. As conditions degrade, he said, people will continue to leave their country. The drought is not easing, the armed conflict is devastating, and relief for the people of Syria is not yet in sight.

This blog originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and was produced by TTU Climate Science Center, written by Susan Gillette, Dr.Katharine Hayhoe, and Dr. Cristina Bradatan.  

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