Climate Change and the Middle East

Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.
Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.

I’ve blogged before regarding the argument that a disastrous drought helped to feed the conflict in Syria. It’s worth revisiting the topic, however, based on a report edited by Caitlin Werrel and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security.The report, “Climate Change and the Arab Spring,” was published in February 2013, and makes the argument that climate change was a key factor in the Arab Spring, although that is not to say that it caused the uprisings. The essays in the collection clarify the truly global factors that underpinned this event, from declining wheat production in China, which undermined food security in the Middle East, to the “transcendent challenges” created by climate change globally.

The link between drought and warfare is not new. This linkage, for example, may help explain the collapse of classical Mayan civilization in the 9th century in the Yucatan peninsula and Central America. The Mayan city-states faced both an epic drought, and -based on the archaeological record- widespread warfare perhaps beginning around 800 AD (Michael Coe, The Maya, 162-163, Jared Diamond, Collapse, 172-174). The historical connection between drought and conflict is a deep one.

Water shortages are now truly a global crisis, from Yemen, where a civil war is taking place at the same time that the water table is plummeting; Saudi Arabia, where water is increasingly supplied by desalination, and food production is outsourced to agricultural lands purchased in Africa; and Brazil, where hydroelectric dams no longer supply enough power, which is causing a crisis for an already bitterly unpopular President. Of course, in the United States our attention has been focused on California, and the wildfires throughout the West, including my home state of Oregon. Still, the greatest challenges are currently faced by nation-states with weak capacity, particularly in the Sahel region of Africa, as well as the Arabian peninsula.

For anyone interested in climate change or security, I strongly recommend this report.  I could imagine this report being a required reading in an “Introduction to International Studies” class for weeks on the environment or security, based on its authors’ thoughtful and insightful writing.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University



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