Overpopulation, Drought and Syria’s Devastating Five-Year Civil War

Published on April 12th, 2016

Consequences include mass savagery, suffering, death and

the stampede of refugees toward Europe on a vast scale.

Large areas of the historic city of Aleppo
have been reduced to rubble in Syria’s civil war.

Thousands of scientists, reporters, talking heads and bloggers, including yours truly, have written millions of words on the severity and dire consequences of the historic drought that continues to bake and blister California. Since this history-making drought has not yet ended, and no one knows for certain when it will release its stifling grip, the full story cannot yet be told.

Less well known in this hemisphere are the tragic, multifarious effects of another extreme drought. This one helped bring about the devastating civil war that has shattered the Middle Eastern country of Syria. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been slaughtered in the violence; ancient cities and historic World Heritage Sites have been pulverized; the demonic barbarism of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has been unleashed, and surrounding countries and Europe have been confronted with the worst refugee/migrant crisis since World War II.

Syria’s uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011 with nonviolent, grassroots street protests, inspired by the Arab Spring that was also shaking the ossified foundations of other dictatorships in the region, especially Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen.

Syrian Kurdish girls navigate the wreckage of Kobane.

According to a 2014 article by Peter H. Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, entitled “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria,” in an American Meteorological Society journal, a crop-withering drought that started in 1998 was an underlying trigger of the economic upheaval and social unrest that eventually morphed into a no-holds-barred civil war of hellish proportions. Writes Gleick:

“There is a long history of conflicts over water in [North Africa and the Middle East] because of the natural water scarcity, the early development of irrigated agriculture, and complex religious and ethnic diversity.”

Agriculture in arid Syria and the Middle East generally
is dependent on irrigation and is inherently challenging.

Crop failure caused by Syria’s worst drought in hundreds of years forced millions of destitute farming families and other rural residents to migrate to the country’s urban areas, resulting in what the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called a “severe social crisis.” These multitudes of vulnerable, displaced persons became what amounted to social tinder or fuel in the eventual conflagration that consumed Syria.   

Syria’s population explosion in the latter 20th century was also extremely destabilizing and contributed to the catastrophe. The population exploded from a mere three million in 1950 to more than 22 million in 2012. With this increase in the number of water consumers, the country’s total per capita renewable water availability plummeted by nearly 90 percent, from 5,500 cubic meters per year to under 760, to a condition of absolute water scarcity.

Population growth in Syria from 1950 to 2012.

In a 2010 Reuter’s article entitled, “Syria grapples with surging population,” written before the outbreak of the social strife and civil war, Reuter’s correspondent Alistair Lyon described one taxi driver in Damascus with two wives and nine children who planned to marry a third wife soon. He said that Allah would choose how many children he had and that he had no intention of interfering with Allah’s prerogative by using contraceptives.

Traditional attitudes like these toward preferred family size and family planning may have been appropriate at a time when infant mortality rates were high, but as modern Western medicines (antibiotics, vaccines, etc.) became available in the latter 20th century, sharply reducing the death rate, one logical outcome was that population growth surged. And this surging population entailed myriad environmental, economic and social consequences – stiffening competition for diminishing resources; increasing traffic, air and water pollution; huge classroom sizes and substandard education; unemployment; overburdened health care, social services and utilities, and so forth.

Back in 2010, when Syria still had a future that was a mix of promise and peril – just before the bottom fell out – Nabil Sukkar, a Syrian economist formerly with the World Bank, told Reuter’s:

“We have a population problem, no question. Unless we cope with it, it could be a burden on our development.”

Subsequent events proved this to be an understatement of epic proportions.

Back then, before the civil war changed everything, Syria’s labor supply was increasing by more than four percent a year from rapid population growth in previous decades. Its feeble economy was unable to generate the number of jobs needed to employ a quarter million young people entering the labor market annually.

And now Syria’s population problem has become Jordan’s, Turkey’s, Lebanon’s, Iraq’s and Europe’s refugee problem, and to a smaller extent, the U.S.’s. Acknowledging that other social, cultural, political and religious conditions also contributed to Syria’s current debacle, just imagine how much more manageable the refugee crisis would have been if there were still just three million Syrians (the 1950 population) instead of the 2012 population of 22 million.

Syrian refugees stream toward Europe.

Billions of people the world over, like the Damascus taxi driver, still believe the number of children they have is Allah’s or God’s choice alone, and not their own, effectively acquiescing to large family sizes and a population explosion with all its attendant implications.

But God’s way of sorting it all out means resorting to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. One would have hoped for better in the 21st century.

For the CAPS position on refugee resettlement, visit http://www.helpmorerefugees.com.

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