Climate Change and Armed Conflict: Assessing the World’s Most Vulnerable Region

Global map depicting warming temperatures. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Perhaps no region on Earth is positioned to suffer the horrors of climate change more acutely than the Middle East, which already contends with limited rainfall, prolonged droughts, and scorching heat. This is especially worrisome given that scholars posit a direct connection between rising global temperatures and the likelihood of armed conflict.[1] Studies estimate that even if our planet achieves the ambitious goals set out in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, the influence of climate change on conflict could mean 40%-80% more war.[2] The already volatile Middle East is critically unprepared to grapple with both climate change and the rise in conflict that will likely follow. 

A recent example of the link between climate change and violence is the Syrian civil war. The conflict, which began in 2011, resulted in 400,000 civilian deaths and forced roughly six million Syrians to flee their country.[3] Proponents of the connection between climate and conflict identify the 2006-2007 drought – the longest the region has ever recorded – as a key driver in fomenting the country’s instability; rural communities overcrowded cities as the country’s agricultural system collapsed.[4] Following the drought, the government mismanaged resources, reduced subsidies for farmers, and raised food prices, all of which contributed to growing popular dissent.[5] Detractors of this theory will rightly object that civil wars are complex phenomena which cannot be attributed to a single cause. However, it is indisputable that the drought destabilized Syria directly before the outbreak of hostilities.

While water is the region’s most precious commodity, it will become even more prized as rainfall declines and climate-driven events like the 2006-2007 drought become commonplace.[6] Across the region, farmers are pumping ancient aquifers to compensate for the absence of rainfall and maintain crop yields.[7] As water becomes scarcer, states will compete to protect water supplies even at the risk of armed conflict. Ethiopia’s efforts to damn the Nile threaten war with Egypt, which relies on the river for 85% of its water supply.[8] Turkish and Iranian dam projects on the Tigris represent a comparable menace to Iraq.[9] A resource-oriented security dilemma will exacerbate tensions as states increasingly scramble to secure water in the region.

Rising temperatures is another factor that will lead to a dramatic uptick in armed conflict. The effects of climate change will cause temperatures in the Middle East to climb twice as fast as the global average; by 2050, extreme temperatures will be five times more likely.[10] The effects of even moderate temperature change are significant; studies show that the hotter it gets, the more people swear on social media and commit violent crimes.[11] The rise in air pollution presents a similar outcome; one report found that pollution increases anxiety and leads to more criminal behavior.[12] As development projects expand and nitrogen oxide fills the air in cities like Dubai, Cairo, and Riyadh, violence becomes more probable.[13] Heat and pollution will be additional contributors to the inevitable rise in conflict.

The effects of climate change also pave the way for the proliferation of violent extremist groups. Global warming disrupts societal stability by disturbing food production, aggravating local grievances, and facilitating exorbitant unemployment. This explains why Syria was such fertile ground for the Islamic State (IS), which recruited 60-70% of its fighters locally.[14] IS appreciated the strategic importance of controlling the water supply; the group focused its 2014 offensive on seizing vital parts of the Euphrates River such as the Tabqa dam.[15] Other non-state actors have similarly sought to leverage natural resources scarcity for strategic ends. Boko Haram took advantage of Lake Chad’s diminishment to mobilize support amongst disgruntled inhabitants.[16] In Afghanistan, the Taliban expanded organized crime by providing struggling farmers with access to markets and capital through the opium trade.[17]

As heat waves, desertification, and droughts intensify, parts of the Middle East will become uninhabitable.[18] Climate refugees will test state capacity as millions flee untenable living conditions. In Jordan, the arrival of Syria refugees strained the country’s infrastructure, increased human waste, and depleted resources in a state that is already water scarce.[19] Although internal displacement in Iraq can be attributed to preexisting conflict, lethal sandstorms and extreme heat promise additional migration in the future.[20] Turkey – which relies on seasonal labor – is also vulnerable to agricultural disruption and internal relocation.[21] Humanitarian emergencies will cause even more upheaval. Yemen relies entirely on ground and rainwater; it is already facing a water crisis.[22] A U.N. report found that the Gaza Strip could be unlivable by as early as 2020.[23] 

If climate change and armed conflict are as intertwined as some believe, the pending rise in regional violence is a near-certainty that must be confronted head-on. States should collaborate to conserve natural resources in the interest of mutual stability. If governments work to resolve environmental issues afflicting vulnerable communities, the risk of radicalization and recruitment by extremist groups can be mitigated. The challenges raised by food insecurity are not insurmountable. Morocco’s commitment to sustainable development goals, clean-energy, and water-efficient agriculture provide one noteworthy example of innovation to replicate.[24] Israel’s drip-irrigation system offers another.[25] Though global warming will soon reshape the Middle East, a blend of governmental, intergovernmental, and private-sector initiatives can address the link between climate change and violent conflict.


[1] Devon Ryan, “Stanford-led study investigates how much climate change affects the risk of armed conflict,” Stanford News, June 12, 2019, (accessed November 23, 2019).

[2] David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019), 125; “Paris Agreement,” conclusion date: December 12, 2015, United Nations Treaty Series Online, registration no. I-54113,

[3] “Syrian Civil War Fast Facts,” CNN, October 11, 2019, (accessed November 24, 2019).

[4] Madhuri Karak, “Climate Change and Syria’s Civil War,Jstor Daily, September 12, 2019, (accessed November 23, 2019).

[5] Brent Eng, et al., “Starvation, Submission and Survival: Syria’s War Through the Prism of Food,” Middle East Report, no. 273 (Winter 2014): 28-32, (accessed November 22, 2019).

[6] Jason Daley, “Climate Change Has Made Droughts More Frequent Since 1900,”, May 2, 2019, (accessed November 26, 2019).

[7] Katalyn Voss, et al., “Groundwater depletion in the Middle East from GRACE with implications for transboundary water management in the Tigris‐Euphrates‐Western Iran region,” Water Resources Research, vol. 29, issue 2 (February 2013): 904-914, (accessed November 26, 2019).

[8] Imad Harb, “River of the Dammed,” Foreign Policy, November 15, 2019, (accessed November 27, 2019); Basilloh Mutahi, “Egypt-Ethiopia Row over Nile Dam,” BBC News, November 7, 2019 (accessed November 26, 2019).

[9] Jumana Al Tamimi, “Iran, Turkey dam projects drying up Iraq’s water,” Gulf News, April 7, 2018, (accessed November 26, 2019).

[10] “Climate change is making the Arab world more miserable,” The Economist, May 31, 2018, (accessed November 25, 2019).

[11] Wallace-Wells, Uninhabitable Earth, 129.

[12] Jackson Lu, et al., “Polluted Morality: Air Pollution Predicts Criminal Activity and Unethical Behavior,” Psychological Science, February 7, 2018 (accessed November 25, 2019).

[13] Daniel Bardsley, “World Environment Day: Middle Eastern cities choked by air pollution,” The National, June 5, 2019, (accessed November 26, 2019).

[14] Katharina Nett, et al., “Insurgency, Terrorism and Organized Crime in a Warming Climate – Analyzing the Links Between Climate Change and Non-State Armed Groups,” Climate Diplomacy (October 2016): 24, (accessed November 24, 2019).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 47.          

[17] Ibid., 34; Michael Werz and Laura Conley, “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in Northwest Africa,” Center for American Progress, April 18, 2012, (accessed November 26, 2019). 

[18] Anmar Frangoul, “Climate change could make North Africa and Middle East ‘uninhabitable’,” CNBC, May 4, 2016, (accessed November 27, 2019).

[19] “Migration, displacement, and the environment,” Mixed Migration Platform, Briefing Paper no. 3 (April 2017): 7, (accessed November 27, 2019).  

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 8.

[22] Natalie Hettle, “Water Wars in Yemen, Middle East Studies Center, November 14, 2016, (accessed November 27, 2019).

[23] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Sixty-second session. “Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” TD/B/62/3, July 6, 2015,

[24] “Green Growth: Putting Morocco in the Lead against Climate Change,” The World Bank, November 23, 2015, (accessed November 27, 2019).

[25] Ruth Schuster, “The Secret of Israel’s Water Miracle and How it Can Help a Thirsty World, July 4, 2017, (accessed November 27, 2019).

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