CNN 09/17/13
By Michael Shank and Emily Wirzba

Editor’s note: Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Emily Wirzba is program assistant for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at FCNL. The views expressed are their own.

The agreement forged by Russia and the United States over the weekend on Syria’s chemical weapons is good news for diplomacy, and bodes well for any restart of the Geneva II peace process aimed at ending the country’s civil war. But the short-term focus on chemical weapons use risks undermining some much-needed long-term thinking on the issue.

Of course, both sides in the Syrian conflict need to be held accountable for their alleged use of (or, in the case of some rebels, their alleged attempts to acquire) chemical weapons. But even after any stockpiles have been accounted for and dealt with, there will still be the outstanding question of how to resolve the ongoing civil war.

And the Obama administration should belatedly be willing to address a surprising source of the current tensions – water shortages. Indeed, the sad fact is that the United States could have helped prevent tensions in Syria from escalating into civil breakdown if it had worked with the international community to tackle a growing problem with this most basic of resources.

In the years leading up to Syria’s civil war, the country experienced a devastating drought, impacting over 1.3 million people, killing up to 85 percent of the country’s livestock in some regions, and forcing as many as 160 villages to abandon their homes due to crop failures.

Back in 2009, as President Obama was taking office, there was talk of how Syria’s water scarcity problem could spark major social and economic instability. Indeed, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies published an Operations Report on the Syrian drought, noting that some 800,000 people were severely vulnerable, and “over the past three years, their income has decreased by 90 percent and their assets and sources of livelihood have been severely compromised.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for its part released a study in 2011 linking more frequent droughts in the Mediterranean and the Middle East to climate change, noting Syria was experiencing the worst drying in the region.

Yet despite such alarm bells, the United States failed to move to mitigate the devastating impact the drought was having.

A 2008 cable sent from Syria underscored the dire situation, with Syria’s agriculture minister stating publicly that the economic and social fallout from the drought was beyond the country’s capacity to cope with. In a direct appeal to the United States, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Damascus expressed his hope that “improving relations” between the United States and Syria might encourage the U.S. to become a donor to the 2009 drought appeal.

Yet the U.S. government appears to have balked at the appeal for greater assistance, responding: “Given the generous funding the U.S. currently provides to the Iraqi refugee community in Syria and the persistent problems WFP is experiencing with its efforts to import food for the refugee population, we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.”

As a result of lackluster U.S. leadership, the global response was weak: Donor countries coughed up $5 million, a mere quarter of the total that had been requested.

How did Syria end up in this resource predicament? For decades, Israel has occupied one of Syria’s key water resources, the Golan Heights, where as much as one-third of Israel’s water supply comes from. It’s a resource that Syria has badly needed to tap.

But the Syrian government’s mismanagement of water resources also contributed to the problem. A combination of growing water-intensive wheat and cotton, inefficient irrigation techniques like flooding, and leaky water distribution networks, have seen enormous quantities of water wasted. Syria also sold most of its wheat reserves when global prices were high, forcing the country to later import large amounts of wheat during the drought years. Desperate, farmers drilled illegal water wells, depleting an already-low water table and causing an increase in the salinity of the water. Indeed, within eight years, the number of wells drilled almost doubled to 213,000.

As the New York Times notes, the Syria government eventually began “to acknowledge the scale of the problem and…developed a national drought plan,” while also attempting to obtain international funding for programs to address the widespread failure of crops. But lack of funding undermined these efforts.

Sadly, Syria is not alone – Yemen is another country on the regional stability risk list as a result of its severe water shortages. And although sectarian tensions clearly play a significant role in the current regional unrest, it should also be clear that water shortages and their knock-on effects are in many cases the match that lights a firestorm of discontent and violence.

If the United States wants to do something constructive to address potential flashpoints in the Middle East it would do well to address the root causes of tensions. And it will find ensuring that local populations have access to adequate resources far more effective – and less costly – than firing off more missiles.