Wars are caused by resources, and wars exacerbate resource scarcity. A new study shows just how much, and highlights the dangerous future
In September, when the world still seemed so full of promise, we talked about how the epoch-climaxing and world-changing tragedy of the Syrian civil war came out, in part, due to poor water management and a drought that exaggerated the human incompetence (and which itself was caused partly by human shortsightedness and venality, which are really the same thing).
It’s a too-neat line, sure. Obviously, if a drought happened in a country that wasn’t a still-loose amalgamation of tribes and cultures, born of the fall of the Ottoman and selfish European meddlings, and wasn’t run by the son of a man who crushed his enemies, making political reconciliation different, things might not have turned out the way they did. Local context will always matter.
But here’s the thing: the same sort of story can, and is, playing out all over the world. It’s a different story each time, because history and culture are different everywhere, and local actors react to their circumstances based on their circumscribed set of options, but the cause/reaction is the same. Fewer resources. Less arable land. Policies that, almost by necessity, rob the future to soothe the roiling present. People leaving desiccated rural areas. Cities becoming unmanageable, overpopulated, poor and underemployed. Discontent turns to violence. Depending on the situation, that can turn to war. It could also simmer as inner city violence, like we see in so many American cities.
What I didn’t talk about was how those wars would further alter the land and make it even harder to sustain. The war has shattered Syria, and I personally don’t see how it can be put together again, but whenever I said that I meant politically and culturally. As a new study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlighted by phys.org, points out, the war has also further wrecked Syria’s already-fragile system of water management.
Using composite images of the 11 largest Syrian-controlled surface water reservoirs in the basin, researchers measured a 49 percent decrease in reservoir storage. Irrigated crops are greener than natural vegetation during the dry summer season. This characteristic was used to show Syria’s irrigated land in the basin had decreased by 47 percent.
It’s hard to say what this will mean moving forward, but it is easy to predict the broad outlines. Further dependence on outside sources for food. A continued increase in urbanization, with the discontent that follows. A further need for Asad, in whatever part of the country he controls, to crack down on any discontent, any further stirrings. He’s waged a war of brutal demoralization, and that can’t relax, not as long as he is alive. That can only play out into more war.
Water is the primary issue of the 21st-century, and everything else we do is just the showoff movements of hammy stage actors, ignoring that the backdrop is crashing around them. We don’t know how it will all play out, but we know that battle lines are being drawn.
We see this, oddly, in Jordan, who has managed to get even more water than usual thanks to the blitzed and thunderous wreckage in Syria. The Yarmouk River has released more water into that parched land because Syria hasn’t managed it. But it still isn’t enough to make up for the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have fled to Jordan. ANd it still isn’t as much water as they deserve.
Despite this unexpected result, Jordan’s flow from the Yarmouk River remains substantially below the volume expected under bilateral agreements with Syria, a result of legal and illegal reservoirs built in Syria, according to Gorelick.
Were it not for the civil war, this could have been another regional flashpoint. Water flows in the path of least resistance, but it gets everywhere, and before you know it, you’re both desiccated and drowning at the same time.