Some look at the upheaval in Syria through a religious lens. The Sunni and Shia factions, battling for supremacy in the Middle East, have locked horns in the heart of the Levant, where the Shia-affiliated Alawite sect has ruled a majority Sunni nation for decades.
Some see it through a social prism. As they did in Tunis with Muhammad Bouazizi — an honest man who couldn’t make an honest living in this corruption-ridden part of the world — the social protests that sparked the war in Syria started in the poor and disenfranchised parts of the country.
And others look at the eroding boundaries of state in Syria and other parts of the Middle East as a direct result of the sins of Western hubris and Colonialism.
Professor Arnon Sofer has no qualms with any of these claims and interpretations. But the upheaval in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, he says, cannot be fully understood without also taking two environmental truths into account: soaring birthrates and dwindling water supply.
Over the past 60 years, the population in the Middle East has twice doubled itself, said Sofer, the head of the Chaikin geo-strategy group and a longtime lecturer at the IDF’s top defense college, where today he heads the National Defense College Research Center. “There is no example of this anywhere else on earth,” he said of the population increase. Couple that with Syria’s water scarcity, he said, “and as a geographer it was clear to me that a conflict would erupt.”
The Pentagon cautiously agrees with this thesis. In February the Department of Defense released a “climate-change adaptation roadmap.” While the effects of climate change alone do not cause conflict, the report states, “they may act as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world.” Predominantly the paper is concerned with the effects of rising seas and melting arctic permafrost on US military installations. The Middle East is not mentioned by name.
But Sofer and Anton Berkovsky, who together compiled the research work of students at the National Defense College and released a geo-strategic paper on Syria earlier in the year, believe that water scarcity played a significant role in the onset of the Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring, and that it may help re-shape the strategic bonds and interests of the region as regimes teeter and borders blur. Sofer also believes that a “Pax Climactica” is within reach if regional leaders would only, for a short while, forsake their natural inclinations to wake up in the morning and seek to do harm.
Syria is 85 percent desert or semi-arid country. But it has several significant waterways. The Euphrates runs in a south-easterly direction through the center of the country to Iraq. The Tigris runs southeast, tracing a short part along Syria’s border with Turkey before flowing into Iraq. And, aside from several lesser rivers that flow southwest through Lebanon to the Mediterranean, Syria has an estimated four to five billion cubic meters of water in its underground aquifers.
From 2007-2008, over 160 villages in Syria were abandoned and some 250,000 farmers relocated to Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. The capital, like many of its peer cities in the Middle East, was unable to handle that influx of people. Residents dug 25,000 illegal wells in and around Damascus, pushing the water table ever lower and the salinity of the water ever higher.
For these reasons the heart of the country was once an oasis. For 5,000 years, Damascus was famous for its agriculture and its dried fruit. Since 1950, however, the population has increased sevenfold in Syria, to 22 million, and Turkey, in an age of scarcity, has seized much of the water that once flowed south into Syria.
“They’ve been choking them,” Sofer said, noting that Turkey annually takes half of the available 30 billion cubic meters of water in the Euphrates. This limits Syria’s water supply and hinders its ability to generate hydroelectricity.
In 2007, after years of population growth and institutional economic stagnation, several dry years descended on Syria. Farmers began to leave their villages and head toward the capital. From 2007-2008, Sofer said, over 160 villages in Syria were abandoned and some 250,000 farmers – Sofer calls them “climate refugees” – relocated to Damascus, Aleppo and other cities.
The capital, like many of its peer cities in the Middle East, was unable to handle that influx of people. Residents dug 25,000 illegal wells in and around Damascus, pushing the water table ever lower and the salinity of the water ever higher.
This, along with over one million refugees from the Iraq war and, among other challenges, borders that contain a dizzying array of religions and ethnicities, set the stage for the civil war.
Tellingly, it broke out in the regions most parched — “in Daraa [in the south] and in Kamishli in the northeast,” Sofer said. “Those are two of the driest places in the country.”
Professor Eyal Zisser, one of Israel’s top scholars of Syria, agreed that the drought played a significant role in the onset of the war. “Without doubt it is part of the issue,” he said. Zisser did not believe that water was the central issue that inflamed Syria but rather “the match that set the field of thorns on fire.”
Since that fire began to rage in March 2011, the course of the battles has been partially dictated by a different sort of logic, not environmental in nature. “Assad is butchering his way west,” Sofer said. He believes the president will eventually have to retreat from the capital and therefore has focused his efforts on Homs and other cities and towns that lie between Damascus and the Alawite regions near the coast, cutting himself an escape route.
Sofer and Berkovsky envision several scenarios for Syria. Among them: Assad puts down the rebellion and remains in power; Assad abdicates and a Sunni majority seizes control; Assad abdicates and no central power is able to assert control. The most likely scenario, Sofer said, was that the Syrian dictator would eventually flee to Tehran. But he preferred to avoid that sort of micro-conjecture and to focus on the regional effects of population growth and water scarcity and the manner in which that ominous mix might shape the future of the region.
Writing in the New York Times from Yemen on Thursday, Thomas Friedman embraced a similar thesis, noting that the heart of the al-Qaeda activity in the region corresponded with the areas most stricken by drought. Sofer published a paper in July where he laid out the grim environmental reality of the region and argued that, as in Syria, the conflicts bedeviling the region were not about climate issues but were deeply influenced by them.
Egypt, Sofer wrote, faces severe repercussions from climate change. Even a slight rise in the level of the sea – just half a meter – would salinize the Nile Delta aquifers and force three million people out of the city of Alexandria. In the more distant future, as the North Sea melts, the Suez Canal could decline in importance. More immediately, and of greater significance to Israel, he wrote that Egypt, faced with a water shortage, would likely grow more militant over the coming years. But he felt the militancy would be directed south, toward South Sudan and Ethiopia and other nations competing for the waters of the Nile, and not north toward the Levant.
As proof that this pivot has already begun, Sofer pointed to Abu-Simbel, near the border with Sudan. There the state has converted a civilian airport into a military one. “The conclusion to be drawn from this is simple and unequivocal,” he wrote. “Egypt today represents a military threat to the southern nations of the Nile and not the Zionist state to the east.”
The Sinai Peninsula, already quite lawless, will only get worse, perhaps to the point of secession, he and Berkovsky wrote. Local Bedouin will have difficulty raising animals in the region and will turn, to an even greater degree, to smuggling material and people along a route established in the Bronze Age, through Sinai to Asia and Europe.
Syria, even if the war were swiftly resolved, is “on the cusp of catastrophe.” Jordan, too, is in dire need of water. And Gaza, like Syria, has been battered by unchecked drilling. The day after Israel left under the Oslo Accords, he said, the Palestinian Authority and other actors began digging 500 wells along the coastal aquifer even though Israel had warned them of the dangers. “Today there are around 4,000 of them and no more ground water. It’s over. There’s no fooling around with this stuff,” he said.
Only the two most stable states in the region – Israel and Turkey – have ample water.
Turkey is the sole Middle Eastern nation blessed with plentiful water sources. Ankara’s control of the Tigris and the Euphrates, among other rivers, means that Iraq and Syria, both downriver, are to a large extent dependent on Turkey for food, water and electricity. That strategic advantage, along with Turkey’s position as the bridge between the Middle East and Europe, “further serves its neo-Ottoman agenda,” Sofer said.
He envisioned an increased role for Turkey both in the Levant and, eventually, in central Asia and along the oil crossroads of the Persian Gulf, pitting it against Iran. Climate change, he conceded, has only a minor role in that future struggle for power but it is “an accelerant.”
Israel no longer suffers from drought. Desalination, conservation and sewage treatment have alleviated much of the natural scarcity. In February, the head of the Israel Water Authority, Alexander Kushnir, told the Times of Israel that the country’s water crisis has come to an end. Half of Israel’s two billion cubic meters of annual water use is generated artificially, he said, through desalination and sewage purification.
For Sofer, this self-sufficiency is an immense regional advantage. Israel could pump water east to Jenin in the West Bank and farther along to Jordan and north to Syria. International organizations could follow Israel’s example and fund regional desalination plants, which, he noted, cost less than a single day of modern full-scale war.
Instead, rather than an increase in cooperation, he feared, the region would likely witness ever more desperate competition. Sofer said his friends see him as a sort of Jeremiah. But the Middle East, he cautioned, is a region where “leaders wake up every morning and ask what can I do today to make matters worse.”