By Gianluca Serra – The Ecologist, 5 June 2015
Civil war in Syria is the result of the desertification of the ecologically fragile Syrian steppe, writes Gianluca Serra – a process that began in 1958 when the former Bedouin commons were opened up to unrestricted grazing. That led to a wider ecological, hydrological and agricultural collapse, and then to a ‘rural intifada’ of farmers and nomads no longer able to support themselves.
Back in 2009, I dared to forecast that if the rampant desertification process gripping the Syrian steppe was not halted soon, it could eventually become a trigger for social turmoil and even for a civil war.
I was being interviewed by the journalist and scholar Francesca de Chatel- and was feeling deeply disillusioned about Syrian government’s failure to heed my advice that the steppe, which covers over half of the country’s land mass, was in desperate need of recuperation.
I had just spent a decade (four years of which serving a UN-FAO project aimed at rehabilitating the steppe) trying to advocate that livestock over-grazing of the steppe rangelands was the key cause of its ecological degradation.
However, for the Syrian government’s staff, it was far too easy to identify and blame prolonged droughts (a natural feature of this kind of semi-arid environment) or climate change (which was already becoming a popular buzzword in those years). These external causes served well as a way to escape from any responsibility – and to justify their inaction.
In an article on The Ecologist, Alex Kirby writes that the severe 2006-2010 drought in Syria may have contributed to the civil war. Indeed it may – but this is to disregard the immediate cause – the disastrous over-exploitation of the fragile steppe ecosystem.
Before my time in Syria, as early as the 1970s, international aid organizations such as the UN-FAO had also flagged the dire need to not apply profit-maximization principles and to therefore not over-exploit the fragile ecosystem of the Syrian steppe.
Denial versus the power of an image
Finally, tired of repeating the same words all the time, I resorted to showing the government staff a self-explanatory picture taken in March 2008, a year of intense and dramatic drought. An image speaks more than a million words, I thought.
The picture (above right) portrayed a fence separating a steppe terrain in two parts: the area on the left was open to sheep grazing; the area on the right had been instead protected for at least 10 years. The image revealed a lunar rocky landscape on the left, and a blossoming pasture on the right.
The image simply evidences, without need for any words, that the Syrian steppe ecosystem is perfectly adapted to cope with droughts – yes, even with extreme droughts exacerbated by climate change. However, this landscape can succumb easily to human irrationality and indifference. In front of that image, even the most verbose governmental staff would come to a pause – the jaw dropped for a moment.
In 2014, three years after social unrest first and then a brutal civil war erupted in the country, Francesca de Chatel published an interesting essay arguing that the inability of the Syrian government to tackle the rampant steppe’s ecological crisis, steadily unfolded over the course of 50 years of sustained mismanagement, has been one of the key triggers of the armed conflict in the country.
She mentions as other critical triggers the too fast economic liberalization plan, high rates of unemployment and corruption, and, sure enough, a long-term and suffocating lack of freedom.
Over-exploitation of an ecosystem
The Syrian steppe covers 55% of the country’s territory. This vast steppe land, together with portions from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, has been grazed sustainably by nomadic indigenous pastoralists (Bedouins) for centuries (if not more). Each tribe and clan was linked to certain seasonal pastures and this ensured the sustainability of the grazing – a practice finely calibrated on the need of plant regeneration.
These pastoralists of Arabia are known to have been pioneers in establishing ‘protected areas’ (hema): certain pastures were relieved from grazing, permanently or temporary, in order to allow keeping the whole ecosystem healthy and functional.
The beginning of the ecological degradation and destruction came with the modern state, so keen to uncritically import ideas of maximization of agricultural yields from the Soviet Union: in particular the central government decided to nationalize the steppe in 1958, establishing de facto an open access system – a well known recipe for ecological disaster.
Through this arrangement the customary link between the natural resource and its user was interrupted – abruptly disowning the traditional ecological knowledge of this ancient people. The pastures, not managed and protected anymore by the tribes, started to be over-grazed by free-ranging pastoralists.
A major role in this unfolding disaster was played by affluent urban investors who threw thousands of livestock into the steppe turning the grazing into a large-scale, totally unsustainable, industrial practice.
A similar sort of story of gross mismanagement took place in the eastern part of the Syria’s steppe land, the territory east to the Euphrates, allocated to intensive agriculture via irrigation through underground water.
Water has been pumped from limited underground reserves without much control for decades – so that wells had to be dug every year deeper and deeper with increasing consumption of fuel.
Year by year, desertification sets in
The alternation of wet and dry periods (sometimes lasting up to 5-7 years) is a key structural and natural feature of this kind of environment. The relentless ecological degradation of this semi-arid fragile ecosystem produced a gradual and steady decrease of its resilience in the face of cycles of droughts made increasingly more severe and frequent by a long-term regional drying pattern linked to the greenhouse effects.
Note that increasing the resilience of ecosystems is actually one of the key natural solutions as adaptation to climate change, as it is currently referred to within the circles of climate change international aid work.
While in the past the steppe was able to recover even following intense periods of droughts, during the past decade pastoralists and farmers have started to complain about a sharp and ineluctable reduction in soil fertility and an increase of frequency of fierce dust storms due to erosion.
An evident desertification process has been on display across the steppe land for quite some time. Recommendations to reduce the ecological pressure on this fragile environment – from myself and others – went unheard.
Ecological crisis fans the flames of rebellion
Following a recent cycle of intense drought during 2006-2010, the agriculture system eventually collapsed in eastern Syria greatly facilitated by an abrupt halt of government subsidies and consequent soaring prices of fuel for wells.
At the same time, the ecological impoverishment of the rangelands reached unheard-of levels. “The drought only brought to light a man-made disaster”, said a local journalist from eastern Syria to the International Crisis Group in 2009.
This combined ecological crisis of croplands and rangelands created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the rural areas of the country, followed by massive internal displacements, that the government clearly failed to tackle and manage.
For the first time ever Syria, known to be proudly autonomous in terms of food production (and actually even exporting food), had to rely on a massive international emergency food aid in 2008.
It is therefore not a coincidence that the uprising in 2011 started in provincial towns rather than in the major urban centres of Damascus and Aleppo, Francesca De Chatel argues, aptly defining the rebellion as a “rural Intifada” – one in which Bedouin tribes of steppe origin played a key role.
The same sort of conclusions were reached in analysing the triggers of the Darfur war that that took place from 2003 to 2010 not far from Syria. Darfur suffered from precisely the same sort of over-exploited semi-arid ecosystem, while one again rural and indigenous people were the victims, including nomadic pastoralists.
Life-enabling ecological conditions first
Only in recent times has the key role of ecological conditions in shaping the socio-economy of human populations and civilizations been fully acknowledged and understood. Thanks to a solid western ‘modern’ cultural legacy, until a short time ago, there had been quite strong resistance preventing an appreciation of the link.
Still, in our current consumerist society’s mainstream (sub)culture, nature is perceived as nothing else than a commodity or an ornament for National Geographic covers. But certainly our lifestyle and economy is still completely dependent on available natural resources and on functional ecosystem services.
The good news seems to be that eventually and increasingly these days, the link between ecology and economy (and socio-politics) is analysed, elaborated and underlined. After all, ecology and economy have the same suffix ‘eco’, derived from the Greek oikos (home), not by coincidence.
Mismanagement of earth’s resources
Climate change is a major threat to the whole human civilization in the short and medium term – as it is already emerging in the eastern Mediterranean and Syria, and other parts of the world. This ultimate challenge is like the last call for humanity to start reforming deeply an anti-life economic system, as well argued by Naomi Klein in her last book This Changes Everything.
Hopefully, this new awareness will be the basis for a new era in which the economy is deeply reformed in line with the principles of ecology. The time has come to wisely adapt the ‘norms and rules of the house’ (= Economy in Greek) to the foundation principles of the house (Ecology= ‘knowledge of the house’ in Greek) – and not the other way round, as we have thought and done during the past 200 years.
Otherwise, we will simply re-enact once again the same kind of drama that seemingly has already occurred innumerable times on the planet in the course of the human civilization parable. Civilizations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they did not change.
As David Suzuki once observed: “There are some things in the world we can’t change – gravity, entropy, the speed of light, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die.
“Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature, we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere.”
Also by Gianluca Serra on The Ecologist: ‘The Northern Bald Ibis is extinct in the Middle East – but we can’t blame it on IS‘.
Gianluca Serra has been engaged in front line biodiversity conservation as a researcher, civil servant, practitioner and activist during the past two decades internationally, on the five continents. During 2000-2011 he has worked in Palmyra, Syria, under various umbrellas (UN, EU, NGOs, volunteer). He assisted the Syrian Government in prompting biodiversity conservation in the country and in establishing the first protected areas.