Food, climate change and war: the Syria crisis

Published: 6 September 2013 at 15:14

Water shortages are at the root of civil war, say Anglia Ruskin University experts

As global leaders debate the world’s response to the alleged atrocities of the Syrian government, Anglia Ruskin University is exploring the underlying drivers of the Syrian crisis. 

Syria is the latest in a wave of political unrest crossing North Africa and the Middle East.  Many cite religious differences and a failure of their ruling regime to tackle unemployment and social injustice, but are there other pressures driving the growth in conflict in the region? 

The Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin is undertaking research to advance knowledge on the underlying systemic drivers and dynamics of social unrest through its Global Resource Observatory (GRO), which has received seed funding from the Dawe Charitable Trust. 

The research is developing an understanding of the conditions that increase the likelihood of conflict and civil disorder by attempting to model future trends in global resources that could trigger further tensions in other countries.

Syria, and the surrounding region, has experienced significant depletion in water availability since 2003.  A combination of population pressures, poor water management and drought has impacted on the productivity of once fertile agricultural regions of Syria.  According to a report by UNESCO, this led to a large movement of populations from farms into the cities.

Between 2006 and 2009 Syria increased its annual imports of wheat and meslin by about 1.5 million tonnes.  That equated to a more than 10 fold increase in the cost of importing one of the most basic foods [see figure 1].  In parallel global food prices increased dramatically in 2008 [see figure 2] resulting in families that had traditionally been self-sufficient being exposed to volatile and uncertain food availability.

In response small groups of individuals protested.  The government response, combined with a background of rising protests, existing social tensions and instability in the wider region, quickly escalated into the situation we are experiencing today.     

Dr Aled Jones, Director of the Global Sustainability Institute, said:

“Under closer examination the events in Syria appear to stem from far more complex set of pressures, beyond religious tension and government brutality, with its roots in the availability of a natural resource – water. 
“This is worrying as decreasing water availability is far from a localised issue, it is a systemic risk across the Middle East and North Africa that is likely to be further exacerbated by climate change.
“The Global Sustainability Institute through its Global Resource Observatory hope to build simple models to test and explore our society’s inter-dependence on natural resources.  By modelling possible political instability we hope to get a better handle on how these types of crisis arise.”

Peter Dawe, of the Dawe Charitable Foundation, said:

“You can conceptualise some of the factors that led to the Syrian crisis as a complex and dynamic feedback loop: the desire of the United States to decrease their reliance on international oil markets by increasing their production of biofuel has been convincingly linked to rising global food prices. 
“This, combined with a decrease in local food availability – driven in part by climate change, which is caused by the use of fossil fuels such as oil – led to the protests in Syria.  The resulting civil war has in turn caused an increase in the price of oil on international markets. 
“The feedback loops that operate within global resource usage combined with social demographic trends need to be better understood if we are too avoid creating self-reinforcing conflicts and instability around the world.”

For further information about the GRO project and Anglia Ruskin’s Global Sustainability Institute, please visit