Climate change helps fuel Syria conflict: study

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A record drought that ravaged Syria from 2006 to 2010 was likely made worse by human-induced climate change and the drought contributed to the conflict in Syria that began in 2011, a study said Monday.

"We're not saying the drought caused the war," said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study.

"We're saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human- driven drying of that region."

The recent drought affected the so-called Fertile Crescent, spanning parts of Turkey and much of Syria and Iraq, where temperatures have risen 1 to 1.2 degrees Centigrade and rainfall during the wet season has declined by 10 percent since 1900.

The region saw substantial droughts in the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s, but 2006-10 was easily the worst and longest since reliable recordkeeping began, destroying agriculture in the breadbasket region of northern Syria and driving up to 1.5 million people to flee from their farms to cities, where poverty and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011.

The new study showed that the century-long drying trend matches neatly with models of human-influenced global warming, and thus cannot be attributed to natural variability. And the unusual severity of the recent drought in Syria would have been highly unlikely without this trend.

The study linked droughts in the region to rising sea-level pressure in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which also shows a long- term tread and could be attributed at least in part to manmade global warming.

The study's authors noted that Syria was made especially vulnerable by other factors, including sheer population growth from 4 million in the 1950s to 22 million in recent years and government agricultural policies that encouraged water-intensive export crops like cotton.

In addition, illegal drilling of irrigation wells dramatically depleted groundwater that might have provided reserves during dry years.

As a result, agricultural production, typically a quarter of the country's gross domestic product, plummeted by a third. In the hard-hit northeast, livestock herds were practically all obliterated; cereal prices doubled; and nutrition-related diseases among children saw dramatic increases.

"Rapid demographic change encourages instability," said the authors. "Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with preexisting acute vulnerability."

A growing body of research suggests that extreme weather, including high temperatures and droughts, increases the chances of violence, from individual attacks to full-scale wars.

But the new study, published in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is believed to be the first to look at the relationship between extreme weather and a current war. Endite

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