Exploring the broader field of environmental dimensions of conflict – in the Middle East region and beyond

This post describes the workshop that was held online on October 14th, 2020, as the first workshop in the Climate Stress Syria project. It was co-written by Cecilia Axelsson Örberg, Pinar Dinc and Lina Eklund who were the workshop organizers.

As part of the Climate Stress in Syria-research project, we held a closed interactive online workshop on October 14th to discuss the nexus around drought, vulnerability and conflict. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together experts in the related fields, to summarize the current state of knowledge, as well as to outline methodological and data related issues and share solutions based on interdisciplinary approaches. The networking in the workshop could also help define future research directions in the research community, and to summarize the lessons learned. Below is a summary of the workshop.

Participants from both academic and non-academic backgrounds were invited and the workshop was held using Zoom and the communication platform Slack. Around 15 people from all around the world participated, shared their knowledge and engaged in discussions.

The workshop was split in two parts, a morning session and an afternoon session. The morning session included five different presentations on topics focusing on climate and conflict, with cases mainly from Syria but also from Uganda. The presentations were short (8-10) minutes and sparked interesting discussions that kept on going throughout the day.

In the afternoon, the participants were divided into groups as a “world café” to discuss three topics: migration, agriculture and data & methods (specified beforehand by the organisers). Below is a summary of the discussions:

1) Migration 

The discussions on migration started off with an attempt to define the Syrian drought – when it started and its meaning for migration in the region. The discussion then moved on to discuss the division between Kurds and non-Kurds in Syria and how the narrative around migration differs between these groups. There is a lot to consider and say about the Kurdish question and its connections to identity/conflict, land policy/security policy, drought and migration, something that has not been addressed extensively in the debate about the Syrian drought-migration/conflict nexus.

The involvement of Turkey and other geopolitical actors in the region was also brought up, especially the example of the region Rojava that aims to change the understanding of ecology and agriculture towards diversification of agriculture. There’s a group called Make Rojava Green Again that works with these issues.  

Moving on, migration was also discussed as a way to build resilience, since it can be considered as a form of adaptation as opposed to a failed adaptation. This development from maladaptation to migration as a type of adaptation has become more common in the climate-migration literature, which shows that migration has the potential to decrease vulnerability, but it may also lead to increased vulnerability. A case from Kenya was brought up as an example where we see different outcomes of migration and adaptation. The issue of conflict in origin vs conflict in the new host society/community/place was also discussed as a final point.  

The border between Turkey (north) and Syria (south) shows a strong difference in vegetation greenness, despite similar biophysical characteristics. Image from Google Earth.

2) Methods & data 

Firstly, the quality of the quantitative data around climate was discussed. For the data that is currently available, only long-term trends can be studied and it is hard to make inferences between the climatic events and socioeconomic effects in general. Thus, it can only be said that there is a drought/flood, etc. but we cannot link it to conflict. At best it can be said that it increases the conflict risk but we cannot say that it causes the conflict. Other factors that cannot be quantified using remote sensing or climate indices is systemic corruption due to poor governance. The mismanagement of groundwater was brought up to exemplify this.  

The discussion then moved on to talk about how hard it is for data to capture the motivation of migration, that varies a lot between different people. Another important question to assess is why there was an uprising only in Syria and not in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, where the drought also hit. Most likely, it was a combination of factors that lead to the Syrian conflict, and some of these factors cannot be quantified.  For the case of Syria, an important factor was considered to be authoritarianism. i.e., the state imposes its will, regardless of the well-being of the people. 

Finally, some different types of data were listed:  

(1) Actual and observed data: Meteorological station data is paramount. In the case of Syria, this type of data is securitized and therefore very difficult to access.
(2) Qualitative data based on questionnaires about the social aspects of climate could be helpful. This requires that the data are, to the largest extent possible, objective, i.e., from different parts of the country and not from areas occupied by different factions in order to combine them with climate indices.  
(3) Satellite imagery requires careful usage. Data can be unreliable due to lack of verification (this is difficult to do in a conflict zone). For example, studies of crop yields or crop production can be difficult, since figures cannot be verified in countries like Syria. 

3) Agriculture 

The discussion around agriculture started with the importance of understanding the Syrian agricultural system further back, from the 1960’s and onwards, to understand how the system works today. Then the discussion moved on to talk about using citizen science and community engagement and how this can help when e.g., mapping wells. It was stated that higher resolution data is needed so that the existing and important small-scale variations can be captured. Issued around identifying active vs fallow agricultural land were also mentioned. 

Cereal field in Duhok, Kurdistan Region of Iraq in April 2013

4) Knowledge gaps, lessons learned and communicating complexity 

We discussed the knowledge gaps in regards to the Syrian case, which focused largely on migration and data on how many people in Syria had migrated as a result of the drought, where they had gone, and whether the migration was permanent or temporary.  After that we had discussions about the lessons learned from the case of Syria and how we can communicate this complexity outside the academic spheres. There is a risk that simplistic narratives lead to ill-informed policy responses (i.e., stopping migration rather than mitigating climate stress). Furthermore, if we could move away from the question of how drought contributed to the conflict in Syria, we might learn something about how societies respond to climate stress and how we can build more resilient (post-conflict) societies. 

As a final part of the workshop, we discussed ways of moving forward in the fields of research, as well as the possibilities with a new network like the one created during the workshop. All participants were positive to the idea of future collaboration and to keep in contact as a network after the workshop. Slack is a good tool for this, as participants can be active when time allows.

The main questions that are needed to be addressed in future studies and work were concluded to be the following: 
-How can we link conflict, climate/drought and migration? Can they even be linked? Can we predict future migration and conflict based on this nexus? 
-To what extent do people recognize themselves as climate migrants? 
-Patterns and reasons of migration – historical and current 
-Does policy play a role in causing vulnerability? 
-How do we build resilient communities and implement sustainable policies? 

These questions are challenging and need to be studied from many different perspectives. There is a great will from people working in the field to collaborate trans – and interdisciplinary, as it would help to overcome challenges and knowledge gaps for all participating parts. More workshop like this one and similar network building events are a way to move forward, increase understanding and learn in the process!

One thought on “Exploring the broader field of environmental dimensions of conflict – in the Middle East region and beyond

  1. Pingback: Climate Stress Syria achievements in 2020 | Population and Environment in the Middle East

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