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The Syrian archaeological site of Tell Leilan is located 600 kilometers miles northeast of Damascus, in a remote corner of the country near the borders with Iraq and Turkey. In the Third Millennium BC, the Leilan region was a zone of rainfall-based agricultural economy dispersed among numerous small farming villages. Eventually the area seems to have been consolidated into a number of urban-based administrative centers with centralized organization and the characteristics we define as “states.” Tell Leilan was one of these urban centers, and like the others on the region came under the control of the larger empire of Akkad, based in Southern Mesopotamia, around 2300 BC. The town was rebuilt with extensive military fortifications, public buildings, religious spaces and a governing machinery designed to funnel agricultural taxes toward the imperial centers of power to the South.
Then something happened.
Around 2200 BC Tell Leilan was abruptly abandoned at the same time that other urban and rural centers in the region drastically declined or fell into ruin. Archaeologists have coordinated these events with scientific data about ancient climate change derived from geologic cores, lake-bed sediments and pollen deposits which indicate a sudden and sweeping trend to drier and hotter weather conditions. Diminished rainfall rendered much of the land around Leilan unsuitable for the cereal agriculture that had been the basis for the local economy. Regional population declined and dispersed through migration or replacement of sedentary villages by a mobile pastoral way of life more appropriate for the reduced productivity of the land.
It may be argued whether changing climate was the unique cause of urban abandonment – as the excavators of believe – or whether it was one factor among others which pushed the local society to the political tipping point. But at Leilan, the ruins of the Akkadian city were covered by a deep layer of fine wind-blown sediment. The region had become, in effect, an ancient dust bowl.
The urban centers of Southern Mesopotamia were less impacted at first. Their agriculture was based primarily on a highly developed system of irrigation from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. But reduced rainfall in the highlands also diminished flows in the great rivers and rendered irrigation less productive. The loss of agricultural tribute from the north and the swelling of refugee populations – along with pressure from warlike pastoral tribes – soon led to the collapse of imperial civilization there also.
It took hundreds of years and the return of cooler, moister weather before Leilan and other urban centers revived around 1900 BC.
We may be tempted to dismiss these events as interesting, but remote developments in the distant past having nothing much to do with what is happening today. But a closer look at contemporary trends in Middle East suggests that we may be witnessing some of the same processes reflected in contemporary social and political events.
Years before the eruption of the Arab Spring and the revolt against the Assad dictatorship there were signs of acute social disruptions in various regions of the country from diminished rainfall and agricultural crisis. In 2010 it was possible even in the Western press to read reports like this about rising drought Syria:
Earth Is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived
The farmlands spreading north and east of this Euphrates River town were once the breadbasket of the region, a vast expanse of golden wheat fields and bucolic sheep herds.
Now, after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent — including much of neighboring Iraq — appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.
Three years of drought have destroyed crops and livestock, ruining the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and displacing some 300,000 rural families to cities… uneven rainfall distribution has caused continued, widespread crop failure, putting the more than one million people already bordering on the poverty line into further jeopardy.
A recent article reports: “From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” The Food Policy Research Institute “projects that… yields of rainfed crops in the country may decline ‘between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.’ ”
Social unrest soon followed the agricultural crisis:
Rural-urban population movements throughout the course of the recent droughts have placed significant strains on Syria’s economically-depressed cities, which incidentally have their own water infrastructure deficiencies. Poor have been forced to compete with poor not just for scarce employment opportunities, but for access to water resources as well. According to Damascus-based expert Francesca de Châtel, Syria has experienced a “huge deterioration of [water] availability per capita,” partly as a result of a crumbling urban infrastructure. Furthermore, the role of disaffected rural communities in the Syrian opposition movement has been prominent compared to their equivalents in other “Arab Spring” countries. Indeed, the rural farming town of Dara’a was the focal point for protests in the early stages of the opposition movement last year – a place that was especially hard hit by five years of drought and water scarcity, with little assistance from the al-Assad regime.
Climate change was not necessarily the prime cause of the Syrian uprising, but it is hard to deny that it played some role.
Of course, the effects of underlying weather trends – and especially food and water insecurity – are not limited to Syria. Aside from the human cost, the availability of relatively cheap local food staples is a major factor in maintaining the stability of regimes (especially authoritarian regimes) around the world. Bread has been artificially cheap in Egypt and Jordan, for example, based on government subsidies and imported US wheat. Local agricultural productivity in those countries is likely to decline under drought conditions and possible diminished river flows in the Nile Delta, as has been documented in evidence for ancient weather change. What political instability may ensue from these developments is hard to measure, but the effects seem inevitable, and not just in the Middle East. National budgets in widely dispersed countries where basic food is subsidized are under severe and perhaps unsustainable strain.
Food riots have been reported in various countries around the world and governments are taking notice by increasing imports, where they are able, to hold food prices down or ban agricultural exports. All this stokes competition for world food supplies and further strains prices.
As these climate trends continue, competition for water resources will also intensify. Water issues have already been the trigger for military conflicts between Israel and its neighbors over rights to the Litani River in Lebanon and the headwaters of the Jordan River in Syria. And one reason for Israel’s refusal to give up occupied Palestinian territory has to do with maintaining control of important subterranean aquifers located under the hills of the West Bank.
Turkey’s neighbors have complained to about the effects of damming the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Eastern Anatolia. In Africa, there have been ongoing disputes between Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda over exploiting the sources of the Nile. Israel has recently inserted itself into the argument by negotiating water agreements with newly independent South Sudan – a country whose existence owes much to Israeli military support for the rebel movements over the years.
If US agricultural exports are temporarily easing local food shortages – at a price — they are also destroying the basis for local agricultural production and self-sufficiency – as in Haiti and Mexico — based on a mix of locally-adapted crops and small peasant farming. Meanwhile the concentrated dependence of so much of the world’s food supply on giant agribusiness plantations in the US heartland carries its own risks. As we are observing this summer, hot and dry drought conditions threaten higher prices and hunger in distant parts of the globe.
And not only in distant lands. Cheap food has long been a bedrock of political quiet and “American exceptionalism” attitudes in the US. Anyone shopping lately could not fail to notice significant price increases in basic products (breakfast cereals!) and especially beef. Better off urban foodies may choose to spend more of their income on expensive locally produced organic products, but many families with limited incomes are facing involuntary changes in their patterns of food consumption. Whether less beef could translate into more social unrest is not perhaps just a theoretical question.
JEFF KLEIN is a retired union president, political observer and long-time international solidarity activist.