Yousef Meslmani, lead author of the last climate report from Damascus explains links between conflict and warming
By Ed King
Did Syrian president Bashar al-Assad ever read the country’s 2010 climate change report, compiled by government scientists and now filed with the United Nations?
It’s a question only he will be able to answer, but the 164-page document, decorated with pictures of the ancient city of Palmyra, now under ISIS control, could have helped him avert disaster.
It contained a series of warnings over the social, political and economic consequences of a persistent drought that first struck in 2006, and the decaying nature of the country’s infrastructure.
And it offered one clue about why resentment against his authoritarian regime was growing. It was failing in one of its most basic obligations: to provide its citizens with water.
“Most Syrian cities currently have a water supply deficit. Damascus, once an oasis with pure and ample hydrological resources, is today one of the thirstiest cities in the Middle East,” it read.
Temperatures had increased “abnormally” between 2000 and 2005 another part added.
The report – the last one filed with the UN climate body by the Damascus government before war hit – offered an ominous assessment of the future climate-related challenges the country faces.
“A major shift in long-term annual rainfall patterns and a rise in temperatures are projected over most areas of Syria by the year 2100,” it read.
“This will predominantly have negative impacts on the agricultural sector, which currently employs 25 – 30% of the total workforce and contributes the same percentage of the country’s total GDP.”
“Economic sectors are highly affected by climate change, leading to a decrease in the ability to achieve balanced socio-economic development,” the report also warned.
Empty houses, dreams
Dr Yousef Meslmani was project director on the study, one of his last acts as a government official before he left the country with his family in 2013 to escape spiralling levels of violence.
It took around five years to complete, and involved visits to the historically fertile crescent of agriculture snaking along the Turkish border from Iraq before curving down towards Lebanon and Israel.
But where villages once thrived growing wheat and cotton, often what he found were empty houses and despair due to the lack of water.
“Between 2007 and 2008 we found 300,000 people had left the countryside to come to Damascus and Aleppo,” he tells RTCC from Vienna, where he now works as an environmental consultant.
“We felt this was a big problem for us. Maybe it’s a reason for the war now.”
Some of the areas now under control of ISIS such as Al Rakkah, a town on the Euphrates and Al-Hasakah, scene of fierce fighting this year, were suffering badly.
“There were poor people. This area suffered from a lack of rain and precipitation… it was very affected,” he says.
During his field visits to villages in the North he remembers asking where all the people had gone.
“I saw at that time only buildings, houses and nobody was there. People said we didn’t have rain for 3-4 years… they left their houses and went to the big cities.”
Over 30 sub reports focused on vulnerability, impacts, social economy and water were compiled for the 2010 communication to the UN. And while the focus was climate, its findings were broader.
A population of 20 million had absorbed 500,000 Palestinians as well as one million Iraqis – the latter a more recent development linked to the two Gulf Wars.
Water use at all levels was poorly managed, said the report. Limited groundwater supplies were being drained, too many wells had been sunk.
Israel, since 1967 occupiers of the Golan Heights, which once provided 30% of Damascus’ water, was also blamed by officials for “looting” supplies.
ISIS and water
The strains on what was a resource and food-rich country were starting to show, says Yousef, with alarming consequences.
“90% of the reason [for anger] is the poorness of these people – they did not have anything. No water, no agriculture… they were refugees in their country,” he says.
“As ISIS came in… they said we will help the poor and all of you will be rich.”
Ministers were warned that water and agriculture had to be political priorities, but they did little, says Yousef: “It was only talking – we didn’t have the action. The people didn’t see any changes.”
Yousef does not solely blame water shortages for the conflict – solutions for these problems are suggested in the report.
But he suggests it was a contributing factor, exacerbated by a weak and feckless government.
The endgame to Syria’s misery does not seem close. Barrel bombs, chemical attacks and atrocities from all sides have hardened the hearts still beating.
Longer term, whoever is left to rebuild the country will face the added challenge of temperatures Syria’s climate experts say will be higher than the global average.
Regional modelling studies predict a reduction of nearly 40-50 mm in the upper Euphrates and Tigris basins, with the river Jordan’s flow also primed to slow.
Yousef left Damascus in 2013 “to save my family and children”. Pictures of refugees fleeing the country are painful for him to watch.
“It is miserable. We thought it would be ok tomorrow, next week, next month,” says the author of Syria’s first and perhaps last UN climate report, before his voice tails off.