Syrian Conflict Exacerbated by Effects of Poor Water Management

May 28, 2014 4:31 pm ET

May 28 (Bloomberg) -- Wasteful irrigation practices coupled with a five-year drought in the Middle East increased tensions among those involved in Syria’s three-year civil war, said the head of Pacific Institute.

Urban centers swelled and became more violent as water scarcity forced people to flee the parched countryside, Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Oakland, California- based Pacific Institute, wrote in an article that will appear in the July issue of the American Meteorological Society’s “Weather, Climate and Society” journal.

“One of the cities where violence really started in Syria was Daraa, and that’s one of the cities where the largest in- migration of farmers and dislocated rural populations occurred,” Gleick said today in a phone interview. “Syria’s not the only place where we see violence over water. Syria just happens to be a place that already was a tinderbox.”

About four-fifths of the nation’s irrigated lands are flooded instead of watered with sprinklers or drip systems, squandering a vital resource, Gleick said. Few, if any, political solutions exist for rectifying battles over water, especially across international borders, which leads to more violence.

“I worry about growing disputes on the Nile between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, and six more upstream nations,” Gleick said. “I worry about southern Asia. There’s a whole series of rivers that originate in the Himalayas, often in China, and flow through three or four or more nations.”

While water shortages didn’t cause the geopolitical and socioeconomic strife in Syria, they were “a clear contributing factor,” he said.

“Water mismanagement and the change in climate played a direct role,” Gleick said.