Tag Archives: drought

ISIS, Assad and Syria’s Misery: Who’s to Blame?

The news today was grim – again. By the latest count, more than four million Syrians have now fled the chaos and killings in their homeland, and crowded into camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, or onto leaky boats headed for Europe’s distant shores. Worse, perhaps, another 7.6 million have fled the violence but cling to life within Syria’s perilous borders.

That’s a total of 11.6 million living souls, in desperate conditions far from home. In a country of 23 million people, fully half of Syrians can’t go home any more.

It’s hard to fathom what a country would look like with half of us fleeing for our lives. In the US, imagine all the residents of our 15 largest cities – from New York and LA down to Indianapolis and Columbus – living in camps or under overpasses on either side of our borders. That’s what it would be like, except for this: You’d need six times more people.

We struggle to translate this crisis into terms we can grasp. The UN Refugee Agency offers this simple graphic, with the searing reality that two more of Syria’s children are forced to flee their homes every minute of the day and night.UN Hig Commission refugee agency

And this is particularly galling for Christians and others who regard the Bible as God’s word. Throughout its pages, sacred scripture consistently identifies three classes of people as deserving our special care and protection: widows, orphans, and sojourners. Sojourners – or displaced migrants and refugees. Here’s a country where half of the people are sojourners.

And so, it’s understandable that we might be getting angry. Who’s to blame for all this suffering? Who turned all these people into homeless sojourners?

If you listen to the cable news, plenty of political aspirants have an easy answer: It’s President Obama, who wouldn’t listen to the hawks and send in American soldiers to set things right. On the other side, many blame Cheney and Bush, for destroying the comparatively benign social order imposed in neighboring Iraq by its former strongman, Saddam Hussein.

But increasingly, our researchers and military commanders are pointing to another, less obvious suspect. Changes in the climate of the Middle East have created a perfect storm of conditions for civil war. A killer drought has driven hunger and mass migration into Syria’s urban slums. Sectarian, tribal and political differences always threatened Syria’s stability, but the unprecedented drought lit the fire in this tinderbox.

A war caused by drought? It’s more likely than you may think. From 2006 to 2009, Syria suffered the worst multi-year drought since record-keeping began. The parched farmland produced nothing, and crop failures drove 1.5 million mostly-Sunni farmers off their dusty farms and crowded them among Alawite/Shiite urban dwellers. President Bashir al-Assad’s resulting social policies favored his sectarian Alawite base, leading to massive discontent among the majority Sunnis, and resulting in the 2011 uprising against his regime. And with many of Iraq’s former soldiers on the run from the newly Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, all the conditions for the rise of a powerful, radical Sunni Syrian movement were in place.

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Start with a crushing drought destroying the breadbasket of the country; drive a flood of farmers into urban slums; throw in age-old sectarian distrust; upend the order of the largest neighbor; and add a heavy dose of presidential corruption and repression – and you’ve got the smoldering ruins of today’s Syria.

Earlier this year, researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study that concluded that the severity of Syria’s drought could only be explained against the backdrop of manmade climate change. In fact, they concluded that human factors made the odds of a drought this severe 2 to 3 times more likely than natural variability alone.

And this isn’t the first study linking manmade climate change to aggression, war and mass migration. In 2013, researchers published in the journal Science a study concluding that increasing temperatures raise the risk of all kinds of conflicts, from interpersonal spats to civil wars and societal collapse. Using results from over 60 studies covering 12,000 years, they found that climate disruptions have increased the likelihood of civil war by 14% in human history.

In recent history, the genocide in Darfur has been called the “the first climate change war,” as perpetual drought drove nomadic Sudanese herdsmen into conflict with settled agrarian communities, aggravating tribal and religious conflicts. But Scientific American cited a 22-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finding that long before Darfur, sub-Saharan Africa suffered from wars most often during unusually warm years. They concluded that one degree C warming will increase the chances of civil wars by 55 percent, causing almost 400,000 additional battlefield deaths over two decades.

The drying Sahel climate drove herdsmen and farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

The drying climate of Sudan drove herdsmen and Darfur farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

Of course, not everyone agrees that the causal linkage between climate disruption and war has been adequately proven, and that’s part of the normal discourse of science. But among the many that have been persuaded are the commanders of the US Armed Services. In the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014, they warned that the impacts of climate change could “increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.”

These soldiers are really alarmed about climate-change and conflict, calling it a “threat multiplier” all over the world. “As greenhouse gas emissions increase,” they wrote, “sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating…. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Do these warnings remind us of anything we’re seeing today? In Syria, this sounds just like what we’re dealing with right now. So if we’re angry about the countless suffering refugees from the Syrian war, and if we’re worried about the horrors of ISIS, what if our best course is to take personal and national steps to counter the rise in planet-warming gases? Because with another one or two degrees of warming, we could be dealing with 20 or 30 Syria-level disasters.

Or has it even occurred to us that we could be among the homeless ourselves?

J. Elwood

We’ve Found Who’s to Blame for Iraq’s Unfolding Genocide

Iraq and Syria seem to have fallen into a flaming abyss. The world is watching in horror as the “Islamic State” militants are alleged to have massacred religious minorities, including unarmed Chaldean Christians and Yezidis.

We pray; we lament; we give to relief agencies. But we also struggle to understand why this is happening and who’s to blame. And the TV news channels are quick to serve up all kinds of plausible-sounding answers:

  • If only President Obama hadn’t withdrawn American forces from Iraq…
  • If only President Bush and Cheney hadn’t invaded Iraq in the first place…
  • If only Prime Minister Maliki hadn’t persecuted Iraq’s Sunni minority…
  • If only Obama had armed the “moderate Syrian rebels” …
  • If only Congress had given Obama the authority he requested to use force in Syria…
  • If only the Gulf States hadn’t armed the jihadists to fight against Syria’s Assad regime…
  • If only Assad hadn’t fired chemical weapons on Syria’s majority Sunni population…

It looks like there is plenty of blame to go around. But have these pundits really gotten to the heart of the matter? Could this conflagration really be blamed on one prime minister, one congress or one president? Or are these charges – plus many others – contributing factors in some larger narrative?

Come back with me to February 2011, when the Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad first burst into the global news. Syrian security forces in the agricultural hub of Dara’a arrested a group of children for scrawling anti-government slogans on a school wall. Dara’a exploded in protest when its people discovered that Syrian soldiers had tortured the children. And then,  Assad’s forces massacred scores (or hundreds) of protesters, plunging Syria into what would become a civil war displacing six million refugees and claiming more than 100,000 lives — so far.

Dara'a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad

Dara’a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad. Photo: CNN.com

The rest – of course – is history. In the wake of the Dara’a massacre, Aleppo and Baghdad erupted in angry protests, leading to violent crackdowns by the regime; crackdowns radicalized the opposition, with increasing elements of jihadist fighters joining the fray; the moderate Free Syrian Army soon became eclipsed by Al-Qaeda-allied forces, including the hated Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS), which soon controlled Syria’s eastern provinces and much of its border with Iraq. Meanwhile in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki established a Shiite-dominated regime, oppressing Sunni communities in the north, and driving many into the waiting arms of the ISIS jihadists.

A tragic story, of course. But why did Syria blow up in the first place? Civil wars don’t just materialize out of thin air, do they?

Well, it turns out that Syria was ripe for conflict in 2011, and initially, it didn’t have anything to do with politics, religion or jihad. Syria faced a devastating drought between 2006 and 2010, affecting its most fertile lands. The four years of drought turned almost 60 percent of the nation into a desert. The country could no longer support cattle trading and herding, as the drought killed about 80 percent of Syria’s cattle by 2009. In 2008, 90 percent of the barley crop failed. Food prices skyrocketed, forcing more than 80 percent of rural Syrians below the poverty line. Continue reading

Climate Change in Kenya: It Didn’t Used to Be This Way

We enjoyed generous hospitality this morning from the staff of World Renew in Nairobi, an NGO affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. At their offices this morning, we listened to leading authorities on agriculture, forest management, food security, development and disaster relief tell us the new reality of life in Kenya: Things are changing, and mostly not for the better.

I’m traveling with new friends from Canada, the U.S. and Uganda who share a deep commitment to caring for God’s creation. Some of us focus our efforts on the ravages of human-induced climate change. But our Kenyan friends are dealing with the facts on the ground, serving the victims of drought, flooding and soil degradation. They’re not fighting for a cause; they’re fighting for people.
The stories they tell all have a common theme: The systems people once relied upon to sustain their communities are increasingly unreliable. Droughts are increasing in frequency; so are floods, such as the ones ravaging Kenyan crops at present; and increasingly degraded soils are undermining the ability of farmers to rebound after severe weather shocks.  The result is increasing hunger, poverty and insecurity.
“Climate events are forcing us to fundamentally rethink how we work,” said Jacqueline Koster, World Renew’s director of disaster response for large swaths of the African continent.
For my part, I’m looking for the data: Prove to me that extreme weather is worse now than it once was; show me the data beyond any dispute. It happens that there is good data, but it only goes back a few decades – not long enough to persuade the most skeptical observers. But skeptics should have heard what we heard today from these experts on the ground. Here are some examples:
  • World Renew program consultant Stephan Lutz traced the trajectory of East African drought over the last forty years. There was one major drought in the mid-1970s that captured the world’s attention. Another came along a decade later. In the 90’s the pace increased to two. Two more hit in the 2000’s. And already, there have been two more crippling droughts since 2010, only 3 years into the new decade. Today, Lutz speaks of nearly “perpetual drought” conditions. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • World Renew formerly viewed its development work in terms of periodic interventions to help communities recover from occasional setbacks on the road to greater stability. But Koster doesn’t talk that way anymore. Climate shocks come so frequently that she speaks instead of helping communities to “build resiliency” in light of the inevitably frequent climate shocks. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • Disaster Response Manager Chris Shiundu told us that farm planning has become much more difficult. Kenyans recall that in the past, on Christmas, they would feast; the following day, they would eat the leftovers; and the next day they would plant crops. You could count on the rains within a day or two. Now, no one knows when the rains will come, and planters must watch and wait for erratic rains.
  • Team leader Davis Omanyo put the routine planting date at February 15 in another region, now abandoned because of erratic rains. And he reported that many farmers must purchase twice the normal amount of seed, so that the crop can be replanted after erratic rains cause the first planting to fail. You used to be able to plan your farming calendar. No more.
  • And while drought conditions have taken their toll on food production, Shiundu told us that excess moisture from erratic rains has also caused maize (field corn) to rot on the stalk, resulting in the total loss of crops in some regions.
  • Project Manager Geoffrey manages disaster relief in Mbeere district, where the maize and cowpea harvests have been reduced by 70% this year due to flooding from extremely heavy rains, and the arrival of a pest caterpillar never known before in that region. “People who are 70 years old tell us that this never happened before in their lives,” said Geoffrey, “nor in the prior generation.”
For those of us from carbon-heavy North America, these accounts prompt some serious soul-searching. We know what our greenhouse gases are doing to the climate in general, global terms. We know it’s driving extreme weather, melting ice caps, raising sea levels and acidifying the oceans. Now we’re listening to our fellow Christians tell us of the impact on God’s beloved in Kenya.
Thank you for your accounts Chris, Davis and Geoffrey. Thank you Jacqueline, Stephan and your many co-workers. We will do our best in the coming weeks to tell your story to our fellow North Americans, and especially those in our churches. At a minimum, we are one body with those who suffer in the harsh new world faced by many Kenyans today. And if our life patterns back home are responsible for suffering in this distant land, we will do everything we can to bring about the changes you deserve.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood