Syria is not a major contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. However, it is especially vulnerable to the impacts of this phenomenon.

By Yousef Meslmani
Photo Manaf Hassan

Global climate change may have a huge impact on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries. New studies show it has already led to significant regional crop reductions: of 30 percent for rice, 47 percent for corn and 20 percent for wheat. Such studies predict that the very shape of the Fertile Crescent, of which Syria is a part, will change, and that it might even vanish completely. It is also expected that the annual flows of the Euphrates and Jordan rivers will decrease by 29-70 percent, which in turn will influence economic growth and make sustainable regional development harder to achieve.

Syria is generally considered a dry and semi-dry area country. The average annual water share per capita is slightly over 1000m3 while the global average is 7500m3. Currently, water resources are greatly and increasingly strained because of continuous drought, population growth and non-rational use of water resources.

Groundwater, an important water source, is increasingly valuable due to successive drought periods, especially as most water landscapes in Syria suffer from water failure. According to studies published in 2009 by GCEA and UNDP, groundwater levels are expected to decline from lack of replenishment which is partially caused by shortening wet periods and a decrease in available water such as snowmelt from high mountains. It is expected that the rate of groundwater replenishment in 2041-2070 will decrease by 30 percent from that of 1961-1990.

Initial data and indicators from the UN 2009 – 2010 drought response plan for Syria show an irregularity in the rainfall system and temperature instability throughout the last five decades.

In the last five years, the average rainfall in the main agricultural areas has declined drastically, which proved especially disastrous during the harvest cycles of 2007-2008 and 2008-2009. Severe, unprecedented declines in rainfall – of 66 percent in Hassakeh, 60 percent in Deir ez-Zor, and 45 percent in Raqqa – resulted in a noticeable decrease in crop production in those governorates. In 2008, average wheat and barley production was only 47 percent and 67 percent respectively of what it had been a year earlier.

According to government and UN data, these drought waves have harmed 1.3m people over the last three years, with 800,000 experiencing serious damage. 95 percent of these live in the three northeastern governorates mentioned above; in 2009, more than 300,000 of these residents left their homes. Meanwhile, as health and education indicators in these areas have decreased, poverty has increased.

The recurrence and increasing intensity of droughts led to a decline in available water sources, and resulted in confused water management across the country. Therefore, most Syrian cities currently suffer from water shortages. Damascus, which used to be famous for its springs, is now one of the thirsty cities in the Middle East. Water scarcity also raises fears about food production and the risks of desertification.

Climate change will probably also cause significant shifts in rainfall and temperature patterns. A decline in overall rainfall and a rise in temperature are expected by 2100 in most parts of Syria, which will put additional pressure on water resources. If serious measures to manage these valuable resources are not taken, the situation will deteriorate.

Undoubtedly, the decline in groundwater levels is also of great concern for the authorities because of its social, economic and political implications. Climate change will affect land use patterns, accelerate the pace of land degradation, and increase the risks of drought, heat waves and dust storms. Indeed, these have already become a reality for people living in the eastern parts of the country. Low-level areas of the Syrian coast are also expected to be flooded by seawater.

Climate change makes economic sectors more susceptible to damage, which limits the country’s ability to achieve balanced economic and social development. This in turn blocks Syria’s path to sustainable development.

Yousef Meslmani is an environmental scientist and the director of Syria’s Initial National Communication Project (INC-SY).