How Could A Drought Spark A Civil War? There are many ways to look at civil war: ethnic factions, economic divides and religions differences. But increasingly, some say we should also look at climate change as a factor as well, as it is often what forces internal migrations in nations already simmering with ethnic and sectarian tensions.
NPR logo

How Could A Drought Spark A Civil War?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Could A Drought Spark A Civil War?

How Could A Drought Spark A Civil War?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The battle for public opinion over what to do about Syria continues. While President Obama pushes hard to make his case that a military strike against Syria is imperative, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is on his own PR offensive. Last week, he spoke with a French journalist. Tomorrow, PBS airs an interview he did with Charlie Rose. Assad denies ever using chemical weapons.

But the Obama administration says it has evidence. And Secretary of State John Kerry has called this juncture a Munich moment. That's a reference to Europe's failure to stop Nazi Germany in the lead up to World War II. While the comparison may be too strong for some, White House officials are using the sense of purpose to drum up support at home and abroad. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It can best be described as disturbing. A video pans through a frenzied room, a room carpeted with the shirtless bodies of men and small children.


ROTT: That's a man slapping at the back of an unconscious boy trying to revive him. This was the first of 13 videos posted to the Senate Intelligence Committee's website, videos that show the alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21st and the first such videos that carry the intelligence committee's official stamp of authenticity.

With members of Congress expected to vote on military action against Syria as early as Wednesday, three weeks from when that attack allegedly occurred, the Obama administration is going into a full-court press. Here's Secretary of State John Kerry.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Those videos make it clear to people that these are real human beings, real children, parents being affected in ways that are unacceptable to anybody anywhere by any standards.

ROTT: Kerry was speaking in Paris where he met with French officials and leaders of the Arab League Sunday, part of his international effort to gather support for what he says will be a limited and targeted U.S. attack on Syrian military targets. He said that the number of countries ready to take action are in the double digits and that all of the Arab leaders he met with agreed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons. But what would come of it was still unclear.

Appearing on one of his five talk show stops Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke of similar certainty and uncertainty at home.


DENIS MCDONOUGH: Not a single member of Congress has rebutted the intelligence, as I've consulted with them. And the question then becomes, what are the consequences for him for having done this, and what does the world read from how we react to it?

ROTT: That's what everyone's waiting to here. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

LYDEN: As the world waits to see if and when the U.S. will intervene in Syria, we want to take a step back and examine how the effects of climate change brought two different regions to rebellion and war. One of them is Mali and the other one is Syria.


LYDEN: That's our cover story tonight: climate change and conflict. The background of the Syrian conflict can seem obscure to outsiders. But long before a shot was fired, there had been drought.

Let's go to the city of Dara'a in February of 2011. This is where the spark ignited that triggered the civil war. Farmers there are unemployed. The dispossessed came into the city. And a group of young people were writing Arab Spring protest slogans on a wall. They were arrested and beaten.


NAYAN CHANDA: And when that news broke, then there was a massive demonstration on the street, and that was the first spark one can call of the Syrian uprising.

LYDEN: That's Nayan Chanda, editor in chief of the YaleGlobal Online Magazine. He argues that there are many ways to look at civil war: ethnic factions, economic divides, religious differences. But increasingly, he says we should look at climate change as a factor. Syria faced a devastating drought between 2006 and 2010, affecting its most fertile lands.

CHANDA: And this four years of drought turned almost 60 percent of Syria into a desert, and that is a huge amount of land which could not support cattle trading and herding. So 80 percent of cattle died by 2009. And the water shortage and the dryness of the land basically drove out of employment more than 50 percent of farmers. So these farmers were completely penniless. They had no way of earning a living. And so in search of job, they started migrating towards the cities they could go to.

LYDEN: I believe U.N. studies showed that somewhere between two and three million people were affected by this kind of dislocation, that 800,000 people lost almost everything, as you say. So you've got about a million and a half farmers coming into the city. Tell us how does the Syrian government react then.

CHANDA: Almost callously, because they talked to the international community, so even agencies launched an appeal to EU. And also, people felt that they are being discriminated against. They are not being helped, perhaps because of the sect they belong to, you know? I think this dislocation and the dire condition created the situation which started the first spark in Dara'a.

LYDEN: Exacerbating things, the government began awarding the right to drill wells for water on a sectarian basis.

CHANDA: And then when the rains dried up, people started illegally digging wells, because the permission to dig a well was a political act. And when people are desperate for water, this started haphazard digging well. And that damaged (unintelligible) more.

LYDEN: Are you saying the drought caused the civil war? You're not saying that.


LYDEN: You're saying that it's a hugely important enhancement factor.

CHANDA: Yeah. It is a multiplier of other causes which are existent in the society.

LYDEN: Right.


LYDEN: What lessons do you think, Nayan Chanda, we should take away from all of this? Could we see something similar in other places?

CHANDA: I can easily see that, because if you look at some of the unrest taking place in developing countries, if you look at the deeper reason, a lot of ethnic animosity between a new group coming into an area looking for jobs or farming, why did they come in the first place? Like in Dara'a, they're coming because where they lived has become uninhabitable. So this migration - internal migration taking place is going to happen more and more as this kind of climate catastrophe takes place.

And if I may remind listeners that what happened in Syria, 1.5 million people uprooted, is the largest internal migration in the Middle East.

LYDEN: Well, it's interesting that you use the word internal because what the outside world is seeing is that it is these internal conflicts that increasingly draw us in.

CHANDA: Yeah. And, of course, then two million have now left Syria to go to Jordan and Turkey. But internal migration started building the pressure inside the country, which kind of exploded in Dara'a.

LYDEN: Chanda is interested in making links between global events. More observers are including climate change into those connections.

Let's turn to our second example, in Africa, and the region known as the Sahel, a grassy band running coast to coast along the southern edge of the Sahara. It's always faced periods of drought, but they're coming faster and faster.

Robert Piper is the United Nations regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel.

ROBERT PIPER: Instead of 10 years apart, they became five years apart, now only a couple of years apart. And that in turn is putting enormous stresses on what is already an incredibly fragile environment in a highly vulnerable population.

LYDEN: Add to this weak political institutions, ethnic and religious strife, and you have a recipe for conflict.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tuareg rebels are fighting for independence and have been joined by Islamist groups apparently linked to al-Qaida...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: These troops, these renegade troops have taken over...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...of what they call their homeland of Azawad with great...

LYDEN: Northern Mali is part of the Sahel. In January 2012, ethnic Tuareg rebels in northern Mali began an uprising against the government. Jihadist militants joined their campaign, eventually declaring the area an independent Islamic state.

Ultimately, a coalition of West African and French military forces intervened. Control of northern Mali was restored, and the new government was elected. While Mali is tenuously quiet, the U.N.'s Robert Piper says millions of people in the Sahel region are still at a risk of food insecurity.

PIPER: This is an enormous territory. These are borders that are uncontrolled. So there's a tremendous amount of movement of people, a tremendous amount of movement of smuggling and trafficking. No question, we had attacks in Niger in April. So there's clear evidence that there's a problem that stretches across the region. It's not confined to northern Mali.

LYDEN: During the conflict, over 300,000 people in Mali fled their homes. They were fleeing war, but they were also fleeing drought. Nayan Chanda would call such people climate refugees.

CHANDA: People don't call them that, because often in people's mind, climate refugees are those who leave their homes inundated by the rising seawater. But I look at climate refugees, those who have lost their livelihood and housing for not only rising water but for tornadoes, for wildfires. I would consider them to be climate refugees.

LYDEN: Climate refugees, it's a phrase we're going to be hearing more often, perhaps in places we've never heard of, but we will. Experts are increasingly aware that climate change, in addition to our human problems, can erode the social contract between citizen and government, between the people and the land.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.