THE ENTIRE MIDDLE EAST has been in a water, and thus food, crisis for decades. In Egypt, for example, the Nile Valley has been drying out ever since the Aswan Dam was completed in 1970; as this once-fertile soil turned to desert, people have streamed into Cairo, doubling and tripling its population by forming tremendous shantytowns. Unemployment was extreme, as it’s not like the cities suddenly had tens of millions of new jobs in them; the government kept order as well as it could by importing grain in tremendous quantities (the government’s by-far largest annual expense) and selling bread cheaply. Unfortunately, a drought in Russia and Ukraine, Egypt’s primary suppliers, caused those countries to cut off wheat exports in 2011 – and the government collapsed soon after.
Syria is a similar story: the lead-in to the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship was steady droughts in the Syrian countryside driving people into the cities by the hundreds of thousands, leading to mass unemployment and unrest. People’s livelihoods had simply disappeared. Stories like this repeat across the entire Middle East.
When we talk about the ultimate causes of the situation, this is the fact we tend to ignore: at the root of it, there isn’t enough water, and there isn’t enough food, and droughts have been hitting the area harder and harder for a decade. When there isn’t enough food, people move from the countryside to the cities; and now you have giant groups of people who still don’t have jobs or food, and that’s a recipe for the collapse of governments as surely today as it was in Europe in the 1840’s.
If you’ve ever wondered why I have often said that we need to be very actively worried about climate change, this is it. Changing climate breaks agriculture in various areas; the people who were farming there don’t magically turn into factory workers or teleport to places which are (slowly) becoming more fertile; they become desperate former farmers, generally flooding into cities.
More from Yonatan Zunger’s post at Google+.