NIJMEGEN, The Netherlands, February 28, 2014 (ENS) – The long drought that gripped Syria from 2006 through 2010 was a trigger of the conflict that has torn the country apart with devastating consequences, finds new research from a Dutch scientist.

Writing in the current issue of the journal “Middle Eastern Studies,” Francesca de Châtel of Radboud University in the Netherlands explains that “it was not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising, feeding a discontent that had long been simmering in rural areas.”

The drought hit hardest in the northeast, the most impoverished and neglected part of the country, which was also the country’s breadbasket and source of oil, explains de Châtel.

“Since 2000, this region has been rapidly sinking further into poverty as groundwater reserves were depleted and a series of overambitious agricultural development projects overstretched both land and water resources. The drought that struck in 2006 merely formed a final coup de grace,” she writes.

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Camel in the Syrian drought, Oct. 2009 (Photo by Richard Avis)

Once known as part of the Fertile Crescent, the region lost its underground water sources, grazing animals died and lush farmlands turned to dusty desert. The drying of Syria’s northeast region was not a sudden, catastrophic event, de Châtel writes, there was no humanitarian crisis; but it highlighted the rising poverty levels and accentuated a series of trends that had been taking shape for decades.

“The humanitarian crisis that followed the 2006-10 drought can thus be seen as the culmination of 50 years of sustained mismanagement of water and land resources, and the dead end of the Syrian government’s water and agricultural policies,” writes de Châtel.

Climate change may have contributed to worsening the effects of the drought, but de Châtel argues that “overstating its importance is an unhelpful distraction that diverts attention away from the core problem: the long-term mismanagement of natural resources.”

She warns that “an exaggerated focus on climate change shifts the burden of responsibility for the devastation of Syria’s natural resources away from the successive Syrian governments since the 1950s,” and allows President Bashar al-Assad and his regime to blame external factors for its own failures.

It is de Châtel view that the “relentless drive to increase agricultural output and expand irrigated agriculture” blinded policy makers to the limits of the country’s resources.

Overgrazing caused rapid desertification; the cancellation of subsidies for diesel and fertilizer as part of a botched transition to a social-market economy increased rural poverty; and many families abandoned their farms for the cities in search of work, she writes.

In short, says de Châtel, the “ongoing failure to rationalize water use and enforce environmental and water use laws” has depleted resources and caused “growing disenfranchisement and discontent in Syria’s rural communities.”

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Syrian refugee women and children cross into Jordan from southern Syria. Feb. 2013 (Photo by N. Daoud / UNHCR)

This destruction of Syria’s natural resources has led to a devastating war. More than two years after the first protests in the rural town of Dara’a in March 2011, what started as a peaceful uprising against the Assad regime has resulted in the deaths of more than 130,000 people, with more than 500,000 wounded, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The year 2013 was the deadliest, with 73,000 fatalities.

At least 2.4 million refugees have fled to Egypt, Turkey and beyond, according to the United Nations. An estimated 4.25 million people are internally displaced within Syria.

The article is based on extensive research that was carried out in Syria between 2006 and 2010, including fieldwork in the Jezira region in 2008 and 2009, interviews with Syrian officials and interviews with migrants who left drought-affected areas and settled temporarily in Damascus, Damascus Countryside and Dara’a governorates in Syria and in the suburbs of Beirut and the Mount Lebanon region in Lebanon.

In her study, de Châtel is particularly critical of the culture of secrecy that surrounds the subject of water within the Syrian government.

“Water has become a taboo that is reluctantly discussed, not only in the public domain but also at government level,” she writes. “In Syria the fixation on water as a ‘sensitive’ issue has extended far beyond strategic considerations and covers all levels of water management.”

“The government’s response to the drought – attempts to downplay it and subsequently deny the humanitarian crisis or blame it on externalities – is part of a mindset that influences all aspects of policy making and implementation in the Syrian water sector,” writes de Châtel.

As in many other countries in the water-scarce Middle East-North Africa region, water is considered a strategic resource that pertains to national security. As a result, accurate and up-to-date information on water availability and use is not readily available to the general public, she explains.

Yet the Assad regime has taken this security concern much farther than other governments in the region.

“The idea that water is, and should remain, ‘sensitive’ goes unquestioned,” writes de Châtel. “As a result, government officials, water experts and analysts avoid any deeper analysis of the state of the country’s water resources. This in turn means that any efforts to reform the sector remain cosmetic.”

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