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Climate change worsened drought in Syria, Iraq and Iran

November 8, 2023

A three-year drought in the region was made far more likely due to climate change, a new study has found. And it will probably get worse in the coming years.

Photo shows boy in a field in an area which has suffered significant losses due to climate change in the Jandaris district of rural Aleppo
Image: Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Climate change exacerbated a severe drought in Syria, Iraq and Iran and made it far more likely to occur, scientists found in a study published on Wednesday.

Since 2020, the region has experienced extremely low rainfall and persistent heat, leading to a drought that has displaced millions of people, ruined crops, and contributed to food insecurity.

Researchers from the World Weather Attribution — an academic collaboration that investigates the role of climate change in extreme weather events — looked at the hard-hit areas of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which spans Syria and Iraq, as well as Iran.

The study found that increased temperatures, caused by the burning of fossil fuels — predominantly oil, gas, and coal — made the drought 25 times more likely in Syria and Iraq, and 16 times more likely in Iran.

It also made the drought worse than it otherwise would have been, bringing it from normal conditions to an extreme drought, on the US Drought Monitor scale.

High temperatures lead to more evaporation of water from soil and plants, making it more severe, they found. However, climate change did not appear to be responsible for changes in the region's rainfall.

Understudied region

Study co-author Ben Clarke, from the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London said the study cast an important light on the effects of climate change in a vulnerable, but understudied region.

"It was actually surprising, the sheer strength of the trend in hotter temperatures over the region," he told DW.

He said the findings will have implications for loss and damage negotiations at the upcoming COP28 climate conference in Dubai, and that they showed the importance of adaptation in the area.

"Building water resilience as soon as possible is going to be fundamental to the continued occupation of these regions," he said.

The people of Syria in particular, have suffered a multitude of water-related threats due to the massive human displacement from the civil war, poor management of water supplies, damaged infrastructure, and even the control of water access as a weapon of war.

Meanwhile Turkish dam projects have helped lower levels in the Euphrates River, worsening the situation in Syria and Iraq.

Iraq's marshes are drying up

The WWA study found that in the future, comparable droughts will occur much more often — at least once a decade in Syria and Iraq and twice every decade in Iran. Further warming of the planet will make this even worse, the study found.

"Droughts like this will continue to intensify until we stop burning fossil fuels," study co-author Friederike Otto said in a statement. "If the world does not agree to phase out fossil fuels at COP28, everyone loses — more people will suffer from water shortages, more farmers will be displaced and many people will pay more for food at supermarkets."

Regional security

According to the Brookings Institute, a US nonprofit public policy organization, the Middle East and North Africa are at the most risk from climate change, particularly given the fragile security situation in parts of the region.

Heatwaves in Iran have reached deadly levels, with temperatures hitting 51 degrees Celsius (123 degrees Fahrenheit) this year. Water shortages have led to civil unrest and regional tensions as well as massive internal displacement.

Previous World Weather Attribution studies have shown that climate change has already exacerbated extreme weather events across the globe, including a Mediterranean heatwave, floods in Nigeria and West Africa, drought in the northern hemisphere and flooding in Pakistan.

People wade through flooded streets, where cars have been left stranded
The WWA said the 2022 summer floods in Pakistan were made more likely by climate changeImage: AP

Burning fossil fuels has already warmed the planet by 1.2 degrees, leading to more extreme weather events. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading experts on climate change, even small increases in temperature will cause significantly worse extreme weather events across the planet.

Countries have pledged to try and keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, but current policies have the world on track to rise about 2.7°C, according to Climate Action Tracker. The World Meteorological Organization predicts the world will, at least temporarily, probably breach 1.5 degrees warming within the next five years.

However, solutions to climate change are at hand, and with sufficient action, the world can still meet the 1.5 degree target. In a speech at pre-COP talks late last month, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres made this clear.

"The window to avert the worst – to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is rapidly closing. But it is still open – just. That is the crucial point," he told delegates. "We have the tools and the technologies and therefore have no excuse not to deliver."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker