Syria and Water Sustainability

When we think about Syria, the most iconic image that comes to mind is the 2015 picture of a young refugee who didn’t make it. We all cared. We all tweeted about what a tragedy it was. And yet – almost a year and a half later – the refugees continue to leave. The Syrian conflict has been analyzed on all sorts of political, economic, and social levels; yet, by virtue of being a multifaceted conflict, there are almost an infinite number of issues and chains of events which could have caused it. Tossing his hat into the ring, Dr. Peter H. Gleick, a co-founder of the Pacific Institute, dissects another theory.

We begin over 4,500 years ago, during the emergence of civilization, and two cities are about to go to war over one of the most important resources in the area – water. The concept of water conflict makes sense; we need it to live and so people will fight to have it, preferably in large quantities. However, what really brings things to a boil is when there are a lot of people and not a lot of water. An example which would really bring this to the extreme is – the bane of desert regions everywhere – drought.

Syria is one of the most water-stressed states in the world. Unfortunately, Syria is also prone to drought. Like a chronic illness, drought has plagued Syria six notable times in the period between 1900 and 2005. But, as most things tend to do, it got worse. In 2006, Syria faced the beginning of a drought which was on a whole new level. Gleick puts it best, saying it was a “multiseason, multiyear period of extreme drought” (Gleick, 2014, p. 332). Lasting until 2011 (5 whole years for anyone counting), the drought is currently the worst instance of water scarcity recorded in human history.

Drought on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Hadi Mizban | Assosciated Press

Of course, a shortage of water for drinking purposes is bad all by itself – but, like scabies, drought quickly spreads to create other problems in all other aspects of life. People are not the only living things dependent on water. Lots of things need water, like plants. A lot of plants will require a lot of water. Therefore, an abundance of water then becomes particularly important when a major corner of your economy relies on agriculture. We know that in Mesopotamia the discovery of irrigation allowed the region to thrive, but it becomes an especially impressive feat when you consider the aridity of the Fertile Crescent.

Importantly, the drought only aggravated already-existing problems with the way Syria manages water. In Western society, an increased awareness about climate change has led to an entirely new and positive attitude about conservation. Yet in Syria, there is simply not enough water for people to have a sufficient amount for everything. There is just not enough water to keep on using it at the rate at which the Syrian people got accustomed to using. In the past, people in Syria and other water-stressed states have made the non-abundance work; but Syria relies a lot on its groundwater for irrigation of its agriculture – a practice that Gleick says is unsustainable (Gleick, 2014, p. 338).

Several countries share the groundwater, several countries over-pump the groundwater, and several countries probably contribute to increased contamination of the groundwater. The groundwater is an international conflict waiting to happen.

Water issues in Syria have already influenced one civil war – which already involves more countries than just Syria – so it isn’t necessarily a stretch to say that the region needs some serious reworking of its water system. For example, according to Gleick, the current Syrian government did try to alleviate the effects of the drought, but it wasn’t enough (Gleick, 2014, p.334). People value water so much in Syria that anti-regime forces took control of the important Tishrin hydroelectric dam in 2012. Water problems still continue to effect the remaining Syrian civilians; in January 2017, the capital of Syria, Damascus, experienced a water shortage for two whole weeks. It certainly seems like a hopeless task, fixing Syria’s water situation, but it’s doable.

Gleick has an idea: sustainable groundwater management (Gleick, 2014, p.338). Acknowledging that there is only so much water to go around, the first step of Gleick’s idea is international cooperation. He suggests that Syria and other nations in the area collaborate to formally agree on how to use the water. Additionally, with international conversation about water occurring, it will open the avenue to potential internationally funded and staffed dam projects along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The second step is implementing modern technologies for agriculture. Not only considering modern irrigation technology, Gleick even proposes introducing new planting patterns and a variety of crop types to increase production. Planting new crop strains in new configurations is one of many steps on Syria’s path to sustainable water.

Collaboration is the solution to this issue, and it isn’t only on Syria to fix its water problem, it’s on all of us.

Christine Skofronick


AQUEDUCT | Water Risk Atlas. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2017, from

A War for Water – The Tale of Two City-States [Web blog post]. (2013, April 30). Retrieved March 19, 2017, from

Gleick, P. H. (2014). Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Weather, Climate, and Society, 6, 331-340.

Hammer, J. (2013, June). Is a Lack of Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from

Hubbard, B. (2017, January 4). A New Casualty of Syria’s War: Drinking Water in Damascus. The New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from

Mizban, Hadi (Photographer). (2009, July). Untitled [digital image]. Retrieved from

Plumer, B. (2013, September 10). Drought helped cause Syria’s war. Will climate change bring more like it? The Washington Post. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from

Van der Heijden, K., Otto, B., & Maddocks, A. (2013, November 3). Beyond Conflict, Water Stress Contributed to Europe’s Migration Crisis [Web log post]. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from


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