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Climate Change, Conflict, and Migration: Can We Save the Fertile Crescent?

The new climate deal must recognize that many of the effective climate change interventions have their roots in agriculture and particular attention must be devoted to the Fertile Crescent.

Syrian Kurdish refugees cross into Turkey from Syria, near the town of Kobani. Photo: UNHCR

The universal agreement on climate change reached yesterday in Paris marks a momentous achievement, albeit criticism by some governments, commentators and civil society actors for it not being ambitious enough and legally binding in its entirety. The deal commits countries to keeping global temperature rises “well below” 2C, the critical threshold of the worst effects of climate change. This was a particular demand coming from developing countries devastated by the effects of climate change and rising sea levels.

However, the devil will be in the details of how the Paris climate deal will be translated into concrete results in the years to come, along with the political will to make hard choices. Its effective implementation will require, among other things, recognition that many of the effective climate change interventions have their roots in agriculture, and particular attention must be devoted to the Fertile Crescent.

The Fertile Crescent is amongst the global hotspots to have already been affected by the adverse effects of climate change. Droughts and desertification have caused agricultural production to decline; scarce water resources are depleting faster and further, and threats to human security are manifested in increased social unrest and conflict.

Climate change fueled social unrest, conflict, and migration

First coined as a term in 1916 by Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, the Fertile Crescent is regarded as the birthplace of agriculture, urbanization, trade, writing, and science. To Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths, it is the earthly location of the Garden of Eden. Wheat, as well as other important global food crops such as rye, barley, flax, chickpeas, peas, lentils, were all found and cultivated here first about 11.000 years ago. For centuries, people living in the Fertile Crescent have and continue to largely depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, in the wake of climate change, increasing demographic pressures,  poor governance and management policies of scarce water and other natural resources, as well as conflict and migration, the Fertile Crescent risks being fertile in name only.

Ample evidence suggests a strong correlation between climate change, conflict and migration from this region. A 2013 report by the Center for Climate and Security in Washington argues that many citizens of the Arab world became part of the Arab Spring protests due to dissatisfaction with their governments failing to address basic needs, which were exacerbated by environmental issues such as droughts, desertification, and power shortages. Other studies indicate climate change will likely contribute to a higher number of displaced persons and refugees from the Fertile Crescent and Middle East at large. According to a 2014 World Bank report, the rise of sea levels, particularly in the Mediterranean, will displace 3.8 million people living in the Nile Delta and other coastal regions. If and when the Mediterranean rises, coastal cities such as Alexandria in Egypt, Algiers in Algeria and Benghazi in Libya will be swallowed under flooding.

Similarly, a 2015 study by Colin P. Kelley concludes that the Fertile Crescent suffered the most severe drought on historical record between 2007-2010. The study argues this caused wide spread crop failure and mass migration of farming families to urban centers in Syria due to deteriorating rural livelihoods. Coupled with poor governance and unsustainable environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect on the 2011 Syrian uprising, which turned into a full-blown conflict.

Could the Syrian case be a portent of things to come in the whole region? Predictions of worsening climates, rapid population growth, increasing demand for food, and high levels of unemployment, particularly among young people, will undoubtedly bring additional strain on the already scarce water and land resources in these countries.

Agriculture development under new climate change agenda

The agricultural sector in the Fertile Crescent can play a crucial role in developing these politically and socio-economically fragile countries and addressing the negative impacts of climate change, provided there is political will to end current civil unrest and conflict, defeat ISIS and give appropriate funding for building inclusive and environmentally sustainable economies.

Both, the rich countries of West and the Middle East must be prepared and willing to play their part in this regard. The countries of the Fertile Crescent are far too important to neglect because of their significance to global food security and to the development and implementation of climate adaptation and mitigation strategies based on agriculture. There are success stories of large-scale initiatives which make it possible to imagine a revitalization of their societies and economies based on appropriatedly funded agricultural research and development under the climate change agenda.

ICARDA's Gene Bank in Syria before war. Photo:ICARDA

For example, research and development work done by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and its partners once enabled Syria to transform from a wheat importing country to a wheat exporting country. This was achieved by developing and disseminating improved wheat varieties resistant to heat, drought and salinity, applying supplemental irrigation to increase and stabilize yield under rainfed conditions, and providing inputs and credit to farmers by the public sector. ICARDA holds in trust some of the world’s most important genetic material for key staple food crops native to the Fertile Crescent, such as wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea and faba bean. Its current research effort under the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and in partnership with a host of national and regional organizations focuses on mining this valuable genetic resource to identify tolerances to cold, heat and drought, salinity, pests and diseases, all of which will be critical to ensuring our food production systems are resilient to future climates.

Agricultural yields can double or triple easily given an enabling environment with investments into agricultural inputs such as water, seeds, and machineries. In Egypt for example, the agronomic mechanized raised-bed production has resulted in yields of 7t wheat /ha that match anywhere else in the world. Many of the technology solutions are available and need to build on local practices and a much better understanding of the adaptation strategies employed by farmers in the Fertile Crescent.

Linking food production to solar and other sources of clean energy can also create jobs and produce legumes and vegetables with higher nutrition and health value. Industrial solar energy plants used to desalinate seawater and grow vegetables in modern hydroponic systems, such as the case of Sundrop Farms in Australia , can revitalize rural communities by providing high technology jobs that can attract young people. A thriving rural sector would be possible with the right incentives for investments around small- to medium-scale clusters of economic activities in burgeoning small towns and cities. Research consortia involving the North and South, greater sharing of scientific and traditional knowledge, building of local capacities and the removal of perverse incentives and trade barriers on both sides of the Mediterranean will all be critical to scaling out solutions.

The Fertile Crescent is suffering. Suffering under the weight of extremes: extreme weather, extreme droughts, extreme living conditions, and extreme ideologies. If these countries are to turn the page on the current breakdown in their societal fabric and state structures, it is paramount they are given the appropriate levels of financial, technical and research support to counteract the adverse impact of these extremes. Support for the countries of the Fertile Crescent will be an important lever for not only addressing global food security and climate change; it will bring hope and better livelihood opportunities for suffering local populations, who need to imagine a viable future for themselves and the generations to come in their own countries. Sustainable agriculture development under the new climate change agenda offers a possible alternative for the future of the Fertile Crescent.

About the author

Dr. Richard Thomas is the Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

Tana Lala-Pritchard is the Communications Program Coordinator at the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

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