We will face evermore dilemmas like the one in Syria as the planet continues to warm. Conditions in Syria created the perfect storm — but not the last — for unrest and a very messy civil war.
Bashar Assad's rule has been dictatorial, out-of-touch, corrupt and mismanaged. Syria is home to numerous combative sectarian and ethnic groups. It is in the center of power struggles between the United States and Russia, Israel and Iran, al-Qaida and a number of other groups.
One match that set the Syrian situation ablaze was an unprecedented five-year drought, reported to be the worst since civilization started in the Fertile Crescent millennia ago. It decimated Syria's agricultural areas. The country's water resources dropped by half between 2002 and 2008 as drought was added to mismanagement, waste and overuse. In 2009, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross reported more than 800,000 Syrians had lost all their livestock.
Extreme weather tossed in another match. Wheat has been a staple crop for centuries and is a part of Syria's identity. Syria was traditionally an exporter, but in recent years has been forced to import it. But wheat (and cotton, the other staple crop encouraged by the Assad regime) requires considerable amounts of water. As the drought worsened, rains came infrequently, rivers ran dry, and underground aquifers were drained. Dust Bowl conditions set in.
Only 6 percent to 8 percent of global wheat production is traded across borders; any decrease in supply seriously impacts countries like Syria. The world's nine leading wheat-importing countries (led by Egypt) are in the Middle East. When the major wheat growing countries, China and Russia, experienced crop-devastating heat waves in 2010-12, they cut off exports.
Middle Eastern countries spend 35 percent of their incomes on food — as compared with 10 percent in developed countries. Wheat supplies plummeted, the price doubled and civil unrest followed.