How long did the infamous Syrian drought last?

The drought that struck Syria and the Fertile Crescent in the previous decade has gotten a lot of attention for it’s potential as a driver of conflict, i.e. the Syrian uprising starting in 2011 and later turning civil war. It has been described as the first link between anthropogenic climate change and conflict in modern history, and even Prince Charles made a statement about the drought, lasting 5-6 years, being a major cause of the conflict.

Whether or not the drought caused or contributed to the uprising, and to what extent it did is difficult to assess. Emphasizing the effects of climate change on society is important, but one should also be careful about downplaying the role of politics and the responsibility of the government.

What I have noticed when reading about the drought is that there are so many different claims to how long it lasted. According to Prince Charles: 5-6 years. Many authors cite this New York Times article that came in 2010 an stated that the drought, then, had lasted four consecutive years.  Kelley et al. (2015) however, refers to a three year drought based on their analysis of climate data. Trigo et al. (2010) stated in the title of their paper that the drought lasted between 2007 and 2009. A climate reconstruction study that came out a few days ago talks about a “15 year drought in the Levant (1998–2012)”, which was the most severe in 900 years. Here, the authors seem to group together two drought periods, one that happened around the year 2000, and this other one that is being debated as a potential conflict contributor (or cause).


Some of the early news articles on the drought.

What I would like to emphasize here is the role of definitions. Drought can be defined in many different ways, which also affect the way it is measured. We divide drought into four different types:

Meteorological drought: A reduction in rainfall, which is perhaps the most common definition of drought and most often the root cause of the other drought types. It is measured using rainfall data, which in most cases are collected at rain gauge stations, but can also be collected through satellite based measurement of clouds (TRMM).

Hydrological drought: This type of drought is measured by looking at the water levels in rivers, lakes and aquifers, which often is an effect of reduced rainfall. Data to measure hydrological drought can, however, be hard to come by, especially in the Middle East.

Agricultural drought: The definition here is a drought that affects the available soil moisture and the ability to sustain crops. I would argue that this type of drought incorporates the two previous types as soil moisture can both be an effect of rainfall and an effect of irrigation from rivers and ground water. This type of drought is also closer to the economic effects of drought, as it affects yields and agricultural production.

Socio-Economic drought: This is where the drought starts to affect human societies. Measuring socio-economic drought can be done in many ways, from quantitative estimations of yield reductions and economic market impacts to more qualitative assessments using interviews with the local populations.



Dried up earth, not in Syria or Iraq, but in Iran 2009.

In my paper called “Meteorological, Agricultural and Socio-Economic Drought in the Duhok Governorate, Iraqi Kurdistan” I focus on these three different types of drought to get an integrated understanding for the drought in the area. I find that the meteorological drought in Duhok (neighboring Syria’s Al-Hasakah governorate) lasted between the hydrological years of 06/07 and 08/09, with the most severe year in 07/08. So three years of drought. My agricultural drought assessment instead shows that the vegetation was affected negatively (more than 1 standard deviation below the vegetation index mean value) only during the growing season of 2008. One year of agricultural drought. Now, this is of course not Syria, and there might be spatial variations, but it shows that there might be a difference in how long the drought lasts depending on what drought indicator you use.

I am currently writing a paper about the drought in Syria where me and a colleague investigate this further. Once it’s published I will let you know how long it lasted with my measurements, so stay tuned!


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