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Classified Cables Show the Real-Life Results of What Research Predicted: Climate Change Sparked…

A new analysis offers a view of the effects of the 2009 drought in Syria.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It was only last year that a scientific study linked the revolution in Syria in part to the region’s historic drought, but, apparently, observers living in the region have long anticipated that connection. American and Yemeni officials exchanged worried cables about the social effects of the drought in Yemen in 2009, according to a new report in the Reveal. The cables were classified and made public by WikiLeaks. Previously, the New York Timesfound similar messages in the WikiLeaks archive, sent by Syria’s United Nations’ food and agriculture representative in 2008. “Many of the cables read like diary entries from an apocalyptic sci-fi novel,” writes Reveal reporter Nathan Halverson.

Of course, people have clashed violently over water rights throughout history. For a few years now, experts have been arguing that climate change — and its ability to worsen droughts like the one that gripped Syria for years before its civil war, which began in 2011 — can spark conflict. The cables reviewed by the Reveal, however, add a front-row view of what happens when scarcer resources lead to social unrest.

It’s not only in the Middle East. Areas like Southern California have grappled with extended drought too. While the infrastructure and governance in the United States means nobody is going to try to overthrow Governor Jerry Brown any time soon, water-related conflict can still get intense. Arizona and California are even dealing with the consequences of the Middle Eastern drought directly.

In an effort to save its own aquifers, the Saudi Arabian government has encouraged Saudi food companies to start farming overseas, for export to Saudi Arabia, the Reveal reports. The largest Saudi dairy company set up shop in Arizona, leading locals to worry about the use of their groundwater. The Arizona Department of Water Resources even requested extra law enforcement for a community meeting held this year about the Saudis’ continued well drilling, knowing that “water can be a very angry issue,” as La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin told the Reveal.

So can climate change and drought lead to violence and war? Different kinds of evidence increasingly point to “yes.” And even more stable countries, like the U.S., are not immune.