Is Climate Change Causing Conflict in Iraq-Syria?

Nicaylen RayasaThis guest post is by Nicaylen Rayasa. Nicaylen is studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Meteorology and Environmental Studies at Ohio University. Along with fellow GJA-blogger, Janice Brewer, Nicaylen took the ‘Place-Making and Making-Places’ summer school module at the University of Edinburgh during July 2014 – you can read more about the group and their investigations of Global Justice here. In this post, Nicaylen considered the rise of Islamic State and how this intersects with climate change.

This past winter in the Fertile Crescent was particularly harsh for farmers, in what is usually the wettest part of the year. It ended up to be the hottest and driest winter on record.

While prolonged droughts and record heat have been commonplace for many parts of the world, the Iraq-Syria region brings an interesting political dynamic to the climate regime.The region’s climate is  based historically on dry summers and rainy winters. However, climate change and the uptick in temperatures has transformed land use and increased desertification during extended droughts. Extreme versions of hot, dry summers have been more prevalent.

The Iraq-Syria conflict in the Middle East has been a growing regional issue for years now. ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the Sunni Jihadist organisation responsible for the newfound violence in the region, arose earlier this year. Their emergence coincidently occurred during the hottest March-May period on record in Iraq.

Temperature Percentiles

Figure 1: National Climatic Data Center

Drought during the last decade has brought a number of problems such as desertification, and food and energy in securities. When coupled with rising temperatures and the loss of agricultural land, climate scientists have confidently proposed that climate change is a direct cause of the environmental degradation in the Middle East.

So, this begs the question: Is climate change instigating the rise of ISIS in Iraq-Syria?

The simple answer is yes, according to Oli Brown and Alec Crawford of the International Institute on Sustainable Development. They explain in their article, Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions:

“Climate change—by redrawing the maps of water availability, food security, disease prevalence, population distribution and coastal boundaries—may hold serious implications for regional security.”

The United Nations service report on Iraq lists it as a nation at the top of the list for being most vulnerable to climate change. The document describes how “rapid population growth coupled with limited arable land” and “a general stagnation of agricultural productivity” proceeded decades of intergroup conflict. Combine increasingly detrimental events such as droughts and torrential rains in the last decade, and it becomes clear that ISIS is governing within a region that is a climatological, political, and societal war zone.

Figure 2: Dust Storms in Iraq-Syria (2010 NASA Satellite)

Figure 2: Dust Storms in Iraq-Syria (2010 NASA Satellite)

Marshall Burke, of UC Berkeley’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, co-authors an article from the journal Science; “The findings of the study suggest that a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50 percent in many parts of the world.”

Climate change is seen as a “threat multiplier” and presents a scenario where environmental damage by higher temperatures affects more vulnerable communities. ISIS is the most power-hungry political entity in Iraq-Syria and has arguably taken hold of strategic resources for its power play against weak governments, native tribes, and farmers.

Al Arabiya reports that “In Iraq, ISIS, reportedly in control of the strategic Mosul dam, has declared its intention to deprive Shiite regions from water.”

While it is too early to say exactly what is motivating ISIS and their push to gain power and influence, their ability to control important strategic resources in an increasingly deprived region speaks volumes.

Throughout the last few months, ISIS has managed to impose a strong presence in Iraq, away from its original Syrian instalment. Iraq’s dire economic situation has indirectly aided in ISIS’s advances into the country. The United Nations Development Programme on Iraq:

“Iraq’s wheat production this year was down 45 percent from a normal harvest, with similar reductions expected in the coming year. As a result, the country has experienced a massive loss of seed reserves for future planting, forcing the country to significantly increase food imports at great cost to the economy.”

The unstable agricultural conditions have displaced farmers away from the rural into Iraqi cities. Not only does this place economic pressures on urban centres, but it creates social pressures that manifest into full-blown crises. The same thing happened to parts of Syria, and the domino effect of climate change now threatens the border into Iraq.

Figure 3: ISIS fighter with Islamic State flag (

Figure 3: ISIS fighter with Islamic State flag (

For organisations working to address the resource shortages in Iraq-Syria, it becomes essential to understand the root drivers of instability in the Middle East: climate change and the accompanying water scarcities.

ISIS will obviously be a regional issue regardless of how much climate change plays a role, but it should become increasingly vital to understand that large temperatures spikes that have been seen in the Middle East act as a catalyst for systematic change to occur. Without climate change, agricultural land use changes, desertification, and water shortages are not as profound and widespread.

The significant cases occurring in the Middle East has made an impact abroad as well. The U.S. Department of Defense remarks that climate change effects are inevitable pressures that “influence resource competition” and “terrorist activity” across the globe. The ISIS example might be the most understandable in terms of historical ties to the region, but the threats around the world are not to be ignored.

The U.S. and other world powers might end up being forced into a conflict that has its roots in climate change. ISIS has found its way into a changing environmental landscape as well as an economically, politically, and socially inept one. The climate reality occurring in the Middle East has allowed radical groups to expand and spread their ideologies under a hotly contested region. This type of hybrid-conflict might be the toughest one yet.

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