Climate, water, and the Syrian civil war: A scientist connects the dots

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: One of the changes the new UN Climate Report warns about is that wet parts of the world are likely to get wetter, and dry parts of the world are likely to get drier. Well, that’s already starting to happen, and one dry part or the world that’s been getting drier recently is the Eastern Mediterranean Region, particularly Syria. And there’s a growing chorus of voices linking the long period of recent drought in the region to the unrest there, that sparked the country’s civil war. One of those voices is Jay Famigliette, he’s a hydrologist at the University of California Irvine, who’s managed to obtain some compelling data on the impact of the drought in Syria. This, in a region where reliable data on such matters is extremely hard to come by. So Jay, you’ve been looking at Syria and the surrounding area through a pretty specialized telescope. Tell us what you’ve been seeing.

Jay Famigliette: We’ve been using a NASA satellite mission called GRACE, which stands for: Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment. And GRACE, works like a giant scale in the sky. It’s almost, literally, weighing the watered mass that leaves a region or enters a region. In the case of the Middle East, we’ve been watching it for the last decade. And, what we see is just a profound loss of water, on the order of one hundred and forty five cubic kilometers of water, which is enough water to supply about, a hundred million people for a year. That’s the amount of water that’s been lost from that region.

Werman: So, I can imagine some listeners saying, ‘Well, this is normally an arid part of the world, isn’t drought, more or less, the norm?’

Famigliette: It is an arid part of the world for sure, but, what we’re seeing now, is that the droughts that were, at least, occasionally punctuated by storm activity, that will disappear. So we’ll be transitioning from drought to desert. And, in Syria, what we saw was a very large, agricultural population, faced with drought, and faced with a government that was not committed to providing a reliable water source. So this huge population saw the water supply begin to disappear, it experienced massive crop failure, and people lost their livelihoods and had to move to the cities. And there, you had a lot of people who, a lot of unemployed, angry men, sitting around, with a lot of bitterness to contemplate. Personally, I think it’s a, you know there’s, it’s difficult to connect the dots between, say, water scarcity, and uprising and conflict. In this particular case, there’s so many water related dots that can be easily connected, that, if you removed any one of those, I speculate that the conflict would not be as serious.

Werman: And just to come full circle Jay, back to climate change. How much of this diminishing water supply in the Mid-East do you blame on climate change?

Famigliette: I think that climate change is, is certainly rearing it’s head, it’s an arid region, and models suggest, and observations are beginning to show us, that these dry regions of the world are getting drier. We certainly see that in our GRACE gravity data. So, the upshot of that is, the groundwater that’s being depleted, will not come back.
Werman: I mean, to the extent that water, clearly, is a major factor in some of the instability in the region, and one that’s been relatively ignored by the outside world, what do you think can or should be done differently?

Famigliette: There’s a few key things. Internally, of course, any government that hopes to have stability needs to provide a reliable water source. There has to be that commitment. But one of the things we see around the world is that groundwater and surface water are handled, are handled separately. And a lot of the issues that we’re seeing in Syria are related to groundwater. Groundwater around the world is basically unmanaged. So, groundwater has to come under the management umbrella, both nationally and internationally. Then, I think it’s high time for the state department and international security bodies to be considering water stress as a threat multiplier. It, it hasn’t, it hasn’t happened and, and I think it needs to be included.

Werman: Jay Famigliette, he’s a hydrologist at the University of California Irvine. You can find a link to some of his research at PRI.org. Jay, great to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Famigliette: Thanks very much.