An Ode to Drought and Strife

February 05, 2016 12:00 am | Updated 02:09 am IST

AylanKurdi was three years old when he died. In death, he opened up the hearts of millions around the world and brought to bear the truth of the refugee crisis.

Aylan, a Syrian child, was born in the Euphrates valley. His family was driven out of Damascus in the bombing. His father worked as an illegal worker in Turkey for a few years while trying to legally immigrate to Canada where his sister lived. For whatever reasons (and there are many: his request for Canadian immigration was denied (which the Canadians later denied), he was a smuggler and his children, Aylan and Galib, did not have health insurance. The family boarded an illegal boating expedition to a Greek Island in September 2015. It was an overloaded boat, leaving at night to escape patrols, and there were no functioning life vests on board. Three years old Aylan drowned along with several other children in that trip.

Many hundreds drowned in the past year, many of them children, in trying to flee Turkey for the promised land of Europe.

In this case, they flee a land filled with bombing and destruction, the land of ISIS.

But what caused this? Was it always so bad? Why now?

This is the third social system through which Climate Change impacts human health: Conflict and Migration.

Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute writes an excellent paper on the subject. He writes that although there are several factors that eventually lead to the Syrian crisis as we know it today, climate change had a key role to play.

Syria is a dry country, receiving less than 250 mm of annual rainfall (to provide perspective: India, on average, receives more than 4 times that number per year). Another important source of water is the Euphrates river that flows into Syria from Turkey. But, in the early 90s, Turkey built a dam across the Euphrates river, an important source of water to Syria, resulting in a fall of water discharge into Syria from the river by a third. Moreover, Syria’s population grew from 3 million in 1950 to over 22 million in 2012, reducing the water availability per person to about 327 m3 per person. Hydrologists define any level below 500 m3/person as absolute scarcity. For comparison, the world had 6000 m3/person on average and India has about 1100 m3/person.

This parched land has little room to wiggle as far as water is concerned. Thus the changes that global warming brought pushed it over the edge. Remember that one of the trademark signs of climate change is the increased incidence of extreme events like floods and droughts? Well, the frequency and severity of droughts in the Mediterranean region (including Syria) have increased in the past 30 years. The worst was the severe 5-year drought that began in 2006 and is quoted as being the “worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago”. When you start hearing phrases like “worst ever” associated with climate phenomenon, you know that something very serious is at play. This drought combined with a poor water policy (essentially the over-exploitation of ground water similar to what is happening now in India) set off crop failures that affected 2-3 million people. It left a million people facing food insecurity. This in turn led to 1.5 million people, mostly dependent on farming, moving to cities and urban camps. The combination of lost livelihoods and a large group of unemployed young men congregated in crowded urban camps, provided a fertile breeding ground for the civil war that followed.

The world was aware of this in 2008: there were requests for help from the UN representative in Syria: “Please give us money to feed the people, to help rebuild their lives, so that they don’t come to the cities and create havoc.” The requests were denied.

Now seven years later, there are 4.3 million Syrian refugees. And ISIS.

But further droughts will push more and more marginal farmers out of their farmland. Where will they go? What if millions of Bangladeshis came into India? What if Indians and Chinese wanted to go to Europe and to Canada?

Aylan’s story is going to be repeated a million times over in the coming decades, unless we acknowledge the reality of climate change and take adaptive action on a war footing.

(Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The next article in this series will appear on February 19, 2016.

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