By Abdulhamid Qabbani

Although the effects of climate change are obvious in Syria, awareness of it remains low and programmes to combat it are nascent.

On August 18, the temperature in Syria reached 47 degrees, 8 degrees hotter than the annual average, according to local records.

Despite acknowledgement that heat, desertification, sand storms and drought are increasing countrywide, rarely do Syrians equate them with global climate change, in part because government initiatives to combat it and raise public awareness of it are still in the beginning stages. Few of the average citizens interviewed by Syria Today saw connections between shifting local weather patterns and the worldwide phenomenon.

“Climate change is like news about the possibility of two planets colliding in orbit,” Ahmad Bdaiwi, a law student at Damascus University said, sitting in a park in Midan and fanning himself during an unseasonably warm day in September. “We have more pressing concerns as a developing country.”

Not our fault
Developing countries that participated in the Copenhagen Summit, a meeting of world leaders in December 2009 aimed at tackling climate change, shared this sentiment. Though they offered to curb emissions, the 77-member bloc including Syria balked at industrialised nations’ attempts to impose on them an emissions cap.

“We can’t do anything,” a young dentist said, echoing this position. “Climate change is bigger than us. It is the responsibility of the big, industrial countries.”

Kawkab al-Daieh, Syria’s minister of environment, attended the summit. During the event, she acknowledged to Syria Today that Syria is hard hit by climate change and must take action to combat it.

“Syria is badly affected by climate change, with phenomena such as prolonged droughts, desertification and changes in rainfall patterns,” she said.

The truth on the ground
An international study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in 2008 predicts that the Middle East will be “particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change”.

Other international studies analysing the climate of the Eastern Mediterranean have found that the average temperature in the region has increased by 1.5 to 4 degrees Celsius in the last 100 years. Rainfall levels have declined during the last 50 years and more extreme weather conditions have been occurring.

In addition, climate predictions for the Middle East for the next 100 years predict drought conditions will become 10 times more frequent.

Syria’s Initial National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009 assessed changes in rainfall and temperature between 1955 and 2006. It found a significant decrease in rainfall during autumn and winter during the last 50 years and a widespread increase in summer temperature.

The same report estimated the change in temperature and precipitation for the period 2010 to 2100, indicating a decrease in annual precipitation of between 34 and 75mm across the country. The report also predicted an annual average temperature increase of between 2.8 and 7 degrees by 2099.

Climate change will strongly influence the country’s water resources and agricultural sector. With 45 percent of the population living in rural areas and agriculture contributing 26 percent to the country’s GDP, any change in rainfall and temperature could have serious consequences.

Already today, Syria has a growing water deficit of over 3bn cubic metres per year simply because of rapid population growth, economic development and poor water management. This deficit is set only to increase through the compounding of these issues and the effects of climate change.

Baby steps
Governments from drought-affected countries in the region have started to pay attention to the recent weather phenomena and their consequences and to recognise them collectively as evidence of climate change, although Syria has yet to sign the Copenhagen Accord – the pledge to reduce emissions that came out of the 2009 summit.

In September, Damascus hosted the first regional conference on the issue, the Arab Climate Resilience Initiative, during which delegates from 17 countries, including Syria’s environment minister Daieh, focused on tackling drought and migration.

“Climate change has very destructive consequences for Arab countries and so environmental issues are gaining political support,” Fatma el-Mallah, advisor to the director-general on climate change of the League of Arab States, said of the impetus for the event.

Syria has begun implementing nominal measures to minimise its environmental footprint and subsequently combat climate change. About 60 percent of the country’s power stations have been transformed from fuel to gas and there are plans to import 1,000 energy-efficient buses by 2016, Haitham Nashawati, atmosphere safety director at the Ministry of Environment, said.

But these initiatives are not enough, environmental experts said. To encourage action, there must be more awareness of climate change at all levels.

“Government officials need to become more aware of the future impact of climate change,” Theib Oweis, a water specialist at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, said. “Syria is still not addressing climate change in a serious manner. All government sectors – the ministries of agriculture, education, and health – should cooperate and must carry out predictive studies about the future impact of climate change and develop counter measures.”

Average Syrians can also do their part to reduce Syria’s emissions, Yousef Meslmani, director of the National Climate Change Project, said. “People should get to the stage of awareness where they would be willing to walk and not use their cars,” he said.

Raising awareness by innovative means is essential, a Syrian water resources specialist who asked to remain anonymous, said, adding: “Most Syrians don’t read so we should introduce a television series about climate change.”

The Ministry of Environment in cooperation with the Ministry of Education has initiated an awareness programme targeting youth, the ministry’s atmosphere safety director Nashawati said. Three years ago, primary and middle schools added a lesson on climate change to their curriculum, raising hopes that the next generation is more aware of climate change. On October 14, Meslmani participated in a classroom discussion on climate change, during which students drew pictures of changing weather patterns.

Occasionally, older Syrians observe that their environment has altered dramatically over the years.

“There is no longer a proper winter. I think something in the ozone layer has changed,” Ayman Baghajati, a 63-year-old teacher, said. “When I was young it would rain for a whole week non-stop and in summer, I used to walk to work. Not anymore.”