More than Hot Air: The Geopolitical Risk of Rising Temperatures


Palestinians inspect the remains of a house was targeted in an Israeli air strike, in Sheikh Radwan area north of Gaza City

by Maria Wirth

The physiological connection between hot temperatures and flaring tempers is old news. But as dry areas are getting drier and wet areas are getting wetter, researchers have started to connect climate change to larger scale violence. The ongoing civil war in Syria is a prominent case, preceded by the most devastating drought ever recorded. Even beyond the Middle East, water scarcity has given rise to violent confrontations and reservoirs have been destroyed as strategic military targets.

Syria as a country has been struck disproportionately by climate change. The Fertile Crescent has experienced a 1-1.2°C increase in average temperature since 1900, much higher than the global rise in temperature which averages around 0.8°C. In 2006, an extreme heatwave struck the country, which would last up until the outbreak of the revolt in Daraa. In fact, up until that very day, “many international security analysts were essentially predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring,” Francesco Femia from the US-based Center for Climate and Security told the Washington Post. “It is not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced the worst drought on record,” declared US Secretary of State John Kerry in October.

The extreme heatwave decimated agricultural yields completely in some areas, while crop failures reached 75% in others. Across the country, 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. With their livelihoods turned to dust, an estimated 2 to 3 million rural inhabitants in Syria were reduced to “extreme poverty,” according to UN observers at the time. The rural exodus, in addition to the 1.5 million refugees fleeing the Iraq War, far exceeded the capacities of the jam-packed cities to provide jobs, schools and even basic infrastructure, leading to socioeconomic clashes.

The Assad government further aggravated the conditions by widening the social divide between Sunnis and Alawites by favoring them both in the job market and in land and water allocation. Following the severe mismanagement of water resources, the water table dropped to less than 1,000 liters per person, insufficient even to provide drinking water for the whole population. When the disillusioned Syrians took to the streets, they were met with violent crackdowns. The fierce civil war that ensued left more than 250,000 dead and half of the nation’s 23 million prewar population displaced.

Another consequence was the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS). Penn State meteorologist David Titley told Slate that one could not have predicted the rise of ISIS out of the severe environmental conditions and mismanagement that struck the Syrian people, “but [it] set everything up for something really bad to happen.” With areas plagued by chronic water scarcity and much of the workforce employed in the agricultural sector, environmental conditions have to be factored into the assessment of national security. According to Paul Reig, a water expert at the World Resources Institute, water causes conflict directly, where interests clash over limited resources. Most likely this will appear “in areas where new demands for energy and food production will compete with the water required for basic domestic needs of a rapidly growing population.”

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Moreover, the destruction of access to water has been used as a strategic instrument of war and terror. According to security analysts in Europe and the Middle East, rivers, dams, sewage treatment and desalination plants have all become military targets in semi-arid Syria and Iraq. “Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. …It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict,” said Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank located in Qatar.

Adel Darwish, a journalist and co-author of Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East, attributes a central role to water control in the clashes in Yemen today as well as the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. “My experience…is that natural resources are always at the heart of tribal conflicts,” he told Al Jazeera. Meanwhile, Senegal and Mauritania have gone to war over grazing rights on the River Senegal, the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso have seen violent water clashes and in East Africa, Somali clans kill each other for access to potable water. In 2012, several were even killed in water conflicts in Brazil. “Violence related to water is growing,” Peter Gleick, president of the US-based Pacific Institute, told the Guardian.

Already over three millennia ago, the Sumerian cities of Lagash and Umma went to war over water resources. Much later, at the end of 16th century, a sharp decrease in temperature and rainfall led to unprecedented crop failures, arguably triggering the Thirty Years’ War. Mysterious downfalls of highly developed civilizations, such as the Roman Empire and the Khmer Empire have also been linked to abrupt climatic changes. In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pointed to the Darfur region in Sudan as a conflict area resulting from the damaging effects of climate change.

In 2013, Stanford and Columbia researchers Marshall Burke and Solomon Hsiang introduced large-scale meta-analysis of scientific studies and datasets into the equation. They found that the rise in global average temperatures is increasing all kinds of human conflict—ranging from assault and robbery, to riots, civil wars and armed conflicts between nations. Temperature-related declines in agricultural yields and resulting economic plummets were “most consistently associated with conflict incidence.” Indeed, the US military ranks climate change as a “threat multiplier,” recognizing that it creates “conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Water availability means more than irrigation and provision of sufficient drinking water and sanitation. Water generates hydroelectric power and is necessary to cooling processes in coal and nuclear power plants as well as industrial production facilities. With the advance of climate change, water scarcity is a growing concern, as long-term temperature rises lead to reduced precipitation due to increased absorption.

Whether a direct cause, strategic target or trigger of geopolitical crises, global warming is causing extreme weather conditions in increased frequency and intensity and is expected to continue to do so in the future. Water scarcity is becoming more persistent and more severe, particularly when combined with population growth. Hsiang pointed out that the most advanced societies were struck down by climatic shifts in the past, “…and they probably felt they could cope with anything.” Environmental disasters may not cause violence directly, but they can certainly make communities susceptible to harm. With the wealth of evidence supporting the change in weather’s role as a catalyst for conflict, environmental conditions will undoubtedly be of primary importance to policymakers moving forward.


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