While the attention of the world is on the refugee crisis we need to look at the causes of this mass exodus.
Fig 1: Refugees walking on Hungarian motorway towards Austria in Sep 2015
In May 2013 the Guardian had an article “Peak oil, climate change and pipeline geopolitics driving Syrian conflict”http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/may/13/1
In March 2015, a group of researchers led by climatologist Colin Kelley (University of California) published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the title “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought”
“Between 2006 and 2009, the people of Syria suffered during the most severe drought that country has experienced since the beginning of its instrumental record. As water became scarce, crops failed and cattle died on a huge scale. As many as 1.5 million Syrians, out of a population of just over 20 million, moved from the countryside to the outskirts of already overflowing cities”
Fig 2: Sand tornado in Syria in September 2014
In this article we analyse to which extent peak oil contributed to a fiscal deterioration so that the Syrian government was forced to introduce unpopular policies (tax increases, removal of fuel subsidies, increasing cost of cement etc) which contributed to the unrest.
Oil production, exports and consumption
Fig 3: Syria oil production, exports and consumption
We see several tipping points
- 1996: peak production
- 2001: Crude oil exports start to drop sharply, albeit cushioned by rising oil prices
- 2006: Petroleum imports begin to increase at higher rate
- 2008: Increasing petroleum consumption approaches level of declining oil production
- 2011 Arab spring reaches Syria in March
- 2011 International oil companies suspend operations
- oil embargo http://www.sanctionswiki.org/Syria
- 2012: Oil production falls precipitously as government loses control over Eastern oil fields.
- 2014: Oil production has completely collapsed
Fig 4: Map of oil & gas fields and IS control as of July 2015
Fig 5: Syria’s remaining oil reserves from different sources
Fig 6: Syrian Cumulative discovery, actual production and remaining reserves
Jean Laherrere’s website: http://www.aspofrance.org/
So cumulative production plus remaining 2P (proved and probable) reserves is 7.5 Gb. Jean Laherrere’s production projection on the basis of 8 Gb of ultimate recovery is depicted in the following graph:
Fig 7: Jean Laherrere’s 2009 production profile for Syria
Of course Fig 7 is now very theoretical. No one can predict the future in Syria
This article mainly uses IMF data. The last IMF Article IV consultation staff report 2009
was published in March 2010. Since then no IMF assessment was made due to the political/security situation. As a result of a 2 year long lag of preparing national accounts, lack of data and other discrepancies many calculations are estimates or projections. The earliest IMF report available on the internet is from October 2005 with data going back to 2000.
Government revenue was 21 % of GDP in 2010. The following graph shows oil revenue compared to other revenue and total expenditure
Fig 8: Syrian government revenue by source
Oil related revenue is in decline or stagnating since 2001. Its share of total revenue dropped from 45% in 2000 to 25% in 2010. Despite this, total revenue grew on average by 9.4% pa. This was achieved by increasing income tax and other indirect taxes, definitely not popular policies. Transfers from public enterprises (PE) also contributed to revenue growth. These PEs dominate the energy and financial sectors, play a privileged role in supply chains such as in cotton and cereals and hold monopolies in all utilities, oil and sugar refining, production of cement, fertilizers and mineral water. However, the PE surplus is not net of capital expenditure which comes under the big item “development expenditure” (Fig 10). Most PEs are loss making except those in the telecommunication sector.
However, expenditure grew faster at 10.8%. This difference resulted in a budget deficit of 17% of expenditure in 2010.
Fig 9: Composition of oil revenue
The largest contribution is the tax revenue from the Syria Petroleum Companyhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Petroleum_Company
Government expenditure was 25.9% of GDP in 2010.
Fig 10: Syria’s government expenditure
Expenditure grew by an average of 10.8% pa, salaries by 16% pa.
Fig 11: Defense expenditure consumed all oil related revenue in 2007
The oil balance is defined as: oil exports – oil imports – repatriation of oil company profits.
Fig 12: Syria’s oil balance
The graph shows that the value of net oil exports after 2007 was practically zero. Due to transfers of international oil company profits the zero point of the oil balance was passed 1 year earlier, in 2006, after which it was negative between 1 and 1.5 US$ bn pa
Current account balance
Fig 13: Current account and oil balances
In the above graph, we start with the oil balance calculated in Fig 12 (blue line) and add the (positive) export balance from services, income and transfers. The trade balance of goods is negative and has to be deducted (hatched area) to arrive at the current account balance (red line). We see that the declining shape of the oil balance results in a similarly declining current account curve.
Fig 14: Syria’s average CPI
Inflation largely moved with oil prices up to 2008. The cumulative inflation over the period 2000-2010 was 54%
Fig 15: Syria’s population development (age structure in background)
Per capita oil production peaked in 1993 at 15.2 barrels and had dropped to half of that by 2007.
The IMF praised the reduction of fuel subsidies as a reform, but this was certainly not popular.
Fig 16 : Increase in fuel prices 2008-09
In 2008, fuel prices were lifted, saving around 7% of GDP. In order to offset these higher prices, public wages were increased and coupons introduced which allowed each household to buy 1,000 litres of diesel at a lower price. This costed 4.5% of GDP. In 2009, the diesel coupons were replaced by targeted cash transfers based on income, asset ownership and utility bills.
Fig 17 : Energy subsidies as percent of GDP
The fuel subsidy reform in 2009 meant that the population had to save 8% of GDP.
There are many reasons for the disintegration of Syria and the tragic exodus of refugees. This article showed how Syria’s declining oil production and increasing oil consumption impacted negatively on the budget, lead to tax increases and reduction of subsidies. These factors contributed to the population’s dissatisfaction which sparked the Arab Spring in Syria.
It is absolutely necessary that the world wakes up to the problem of peaking oil production in geo- strategically important areas otherwise there will be more surprises. If countries with a high per-capita oil consumption could finally embark on a transition away from oil this would reduce future conflicts and wars.
But don’t count on Australia where Federal and State governments have embarked on a new, huge program of road tunnels, tollways and airport expansions. The current Prime Minister Abbott even thinks that peak oil has no value for policy making.
Australia has a new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull
SYRIA’S ECONOMY AND THE TRANSITION PARADIGM Samer Abboud, Ferdinand Arslanian 2009
4/7/2013 2/3 of Egypt’s oil is gone 20 years after its peak
16/3/2013 Iraq war and its aftermath failed to stop the beginning of peak oil in 2005
24/6/2011 War overshadows peak oil in Libya
31/5/2011 Sudan’s Nile blend in decline – why we should be concerned
What is Really Behind the Refugee Crisis in Europe?
The Resource Crisis and Climate Change
Back in July, 2013 I wrote this post, MENA - A Model of the Future? in which I dug deeper into the then crisis transpiring in Egypt where a revolt against the Morsi government was being spurred by the fact that the dwindling natural resources per capita (especially energy) were fundamentally unsolvable by any government. The people were unhappy because they thought that by voting in a new government democratically they would solve their problems (jobs, food, water, fuel, etc.) But it didn't happen for the simple reason that the resource pie was shrinking faster than any government actions (say attracting some kind of investment in the country) could counter. Things got worse and people once again took to the streets. Today, two years later, things have gotten considerably worse under the military regime that kicked out Morsi and took over. As I claimed then and reiterate, it is a matter of plain and simple physics, not politics. You cannot legislate resources into existence.
People have gotten used to thinking that solutions come from politics - having the right officials in place means that they will solve the problems. People everywhere pretty much assume this is the case, even in the US where the freak show called the presidential campaign is off and running. No doubt many republicans in the US sincerely believe that Donald Trump will solve all the problems and everything will be right as rain once again ("Make America great again").
But politicians are not miracle workers. They cannot feed the multitudes from a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. What they have become, however, right along side their neoclassical economics allies, are fair magicians — prestidigitators. They know how to manipulate smoke and mirrors and conjure economic spells. They are nothing more than snake oil con men (and women). The irony is that they actually believe what they say and are convinced they know how to really make good stuff happen. They are a testament to the capacity of the less-than-sapient mind's ability to double think.
The simple truth is that when you find yourself in deep resource depletion and high population no amount of financial hocus pocus or political posturing or brute force can fix anything. The Morsi government nor the military junta before and after could ever possibly satisfy the needs of the people. No government could. Nor could there be massive aid influx to ease the situation. The other nations of the world are all much poorer than they will admit. They cannot pump enough resources into the region to solve the problems. There is no scenario in which this comes out well.
Our talking heads continue to evaluate the “causes” of the mass exodus from the MENA region as due to the political unrest growing more violent by the day. For example they look at Syria and blame the problems, initially, on Asad and the rebellion/civil war that threatens so many civilians. Then the US government focuses on the ISIS threat as causing so many people to want to leave. These destructive acts are merely proximate causes. The rebels against Asad are basically repeating the story in Egypt. They claim that bad government (Asad) is the cause of the problems experienced by the people. Replace the government and problem solved! Right? Much the same story is being repeated through out the other failed states in the region.
The civil wars and lawlessness (e.g. Boko Haram) are driven by the rapid decline of resources compounded now by climate consequences, drought and severe temperatures. People are fighting for dwindling resources in increasingly unlivable conditions. The citizens of these states are responding most immediately to the violence, and claiming political asylum on that basis. But make no mistake. They are ultimately climate and resource refugees. And there is no policy or plan that will correct the situation. The lucky ones will escape (if they don't die on the journey) to Europe and possibly to the US. But that will simply cause resource strains in those areas where they settle. Nor will the flood taper off until the region is mostly emptied.
MENA is just the first example of what is happening in the world. As the climate situation worsens, and we now know that it is and will further, affecting every continent on the planet, and as resource depletions grow acute in various focused locations, we will see this same scenario played out again and again. Political upheaval based on the belief that the government's ineptitude, or corruption, or whatever, is responsible for the problems that ensue (food shortages, fuel shortages, unemployment, etc.) will give over to violence. Regimes will change, but the problems will just grow worse.
Perhaps the US and some of the remaining western “rich” nations will try to help, intervene to reduce violence, or attempt to aid relocations. But their capacity to afford such actions are growing weaker with every day that passes. At some point the wealthy nations will no longer be truly wealthy and will decline to try to help. They will, in fact, be starting to feel the same effects themselves. Already we see the discord and extreme polarizations taking place in many western polities. In the US we tend to blame the congress for its deadlocked inability to pass laws that will effect economic change (and assumed progress). Neither side gets a thumbs-up on its economic ideas. In any case both sides firmly believe that economic growth is the solution to all problems and neither recognizes that we've used up all of the resources that we need to do so. They are so blind to reality that all they can really do from now on is exacerbate the problems. In the US we are in a situation that only the most blind persons even seek political position. They are so stupid and ignorant that they cannot even conceive that problems have real physical roots. Pity.
All over the world, right now, you can find cases of pockets of affected areas where people are starting to move out seeking somewhere where they can find work and resources. Within nations like Brazil, China, Russia, and even the United States there are instances of people becoming refugees. The Dust Bowl events in the US are another model for what is happening. Right now, in each of these countries the migrations are within the borders (except in Mexico and other Latin American countries) and so don't show up in “official” statistics.
Certainly there have been relocation migrations throughout humankind's history. We've always managed to deplete local resources forcing people to abandon a region, for example areas in the Middle East were once far more productive than in recent history before ungulate grazing changed the region's climate. And there have been many cases of people simply seeking better conditions (e.g. the American West promised great possibilities, especially during the Gold Rush). What is different about the current situation is that we are looking at a global phenomenon. Resources have been depleted just about everywhere. Climate is changing everywhere and at a breath-taking rate. The regions that are experiencing the worst effects are now quite obvious. The MENA region is probably the most dramatic. For example, by contrast, island nations being threatened by sea level rise and Arctic regions being impacted by loss of ice have fewer people affected and so do not rise to the level of global-level stress. Nevertheless the people effected in these regions are beginning to plan their escapes from their situations.
Right now in China there are many local emigrations taking place due to combinations of insufficient resources and climate change consequences. There is also a fair amount of unrest brewing in various areas. These are not as dramatic (yet) as the case in the MENA region. And internal migrations, as I said, are not depicted in the same manner as the refugee flood from the MENA to Europe. In fact it might be even worse in China than we know. The country is so much larger, the populations involved so much larger, and the information flow coming out of the country is subject to so much filtering that we might not get a good idea of what is happening there until significant violence breaks out that can't be hidden. But based on China's geographical conditions, and its potential susceptibility to climate disruptions, and the distributions of its huge population, I expect to soon see a situation similar to the MENA refugees become obvious in China.
India might erupt before China. The Indian subcontinent's orientation (North-South axis), its reliance on the snow falls and ice reservoirs in the Himalayas and its proximity to the equator make it a candidate for significant climate disruptions. It is already suffering changes in its monsoon patterns at the same time the huge population is withdrawing more water from its limited resources. However, in India I would not be surprised to see a somewhat different response from the populace. The vast majority of people in the country do not have mobility resources in the same way many Chinese do. It would not surprise me if a significant portion of the Indian population simply succumbed in place rather than trying to trek out. The distances are too great and the conditions along the way are likely to not provide support. There is no other large body of land nearby for those in the costal regions to escape to.
As the MENA refugee crisis unfolds this fall we will have a good view of what to expect world-wide. Right now a fair amount of European sentiment is in support of the migrants (I know there is a technical difference between a migrant and a refugee, but as I claimed above, these refugees are really climate-escape migrants). As more and more pour into the continent we will see how long this sentiment carries. There are many anti-migrant advocates already making noises and trying to get more political purchase. A lot will depend on the economic strength of the countries taking in the migrants — will the local natives be able to get jobs? — and the behavior of the immigrants. There is a real danger of culture clash based on the religious backgrounds of Muslim immigrants and secular (or Christian) natives. I refuse to predict anything on this count. The situation is too chaotic.
What I will predict is that the phenomenon will grow and worsen over the next decade. This is a one-way street we are on and no U-turns are possible. You can't un-deplete resources, especially fossil fuel energy. Readers of my biophysical economics writings will know how dim a view I have of the prospects of alternative energies replacing fossil fuels even if we were to undertake a huge reduction in net energy use. Alternatives might ease the pain a bit, for a while, but they cannot provide the long term flows of high power energy that it takes to drive our modern technologies. Magical and wishful thinking cannot change that fact. Alternative energy capture and conversion equipment (i.e. wind towers and solar arrays) are still built, installed, and maintained using fossil fuel power. It is quite doubtful that they will ever be self-sustaining to the extent of providing adequate net energy for economic uses.
If you want to consider your own future, imagine yourself in the shoes of one of the MENA refugees right now. Many of the ones who are making the trip had some basic monetary resources to afford the passage. But look at what they were reduced to in doing so. Imagine yourself now in a situation where the local stores are no longer stocked with food and other necessaries. Imagine your electricity being intermittent, maybe only on ten percent of the day. Imagine transportation breakdowns, perhaps gas is no longer delivered to your gas station. Imagine communications breakdowns. No Internet. No telephones (cell or land lines). What will you do?
But more than that, imagine that you decide to escape. Where will you go. The MENA refugees have Europe, ostensibly, to escape to. They expect their problems to be greatly reduced in these new lands. After all, the North is rich. Where will you go? What country will you escape to? Maybe some Americans are thinking they will go to Canada! But do they actually understand what the climate changes are going to mean for all of North America?
I doubt there will be any real escape. The best a sapient being can do is find a location that looks like it will be least impacted by climate, get situated and hunker down. With luck, you might just make it.
Civil war in Syria is the result of the desertification of the ecologically fragile Syrian steppe, writes Gianluca Serra - a process that began in 1958 when the former Bedouin commons were opened up to unrestricted grazing. That led to a wider ecological, hydrological and agricultural collapse, and then to a 'rural intifada' of farmers and nomads no longer able to support themselves.
Back in 2009, I dared to forecast that if the rampant desertification process gripping the Syrian steppe was not halted soon, it could eventually become a trigger for social turmoil and even for a civil war.
I was being interviewed by the journalist and scholar Francesca de Chatel- and was feeling deeply disillusioned about Syrian government's failure to heed my advice that the steppe, which covers over half of the country's land mass, was in desperate need of recuperation.
I had just spent a decade (four years of which serving a UN-FAO project aimed at rehabilitating the steppe) trying to advocate that livestock over-grazing of the steppe rangelands was the key cause of its ecological degradation.
However, for the Syrian government's staff, it was far too easy to identify and blame prolonged droughts (a natural feature of this kind of semi-arid environment) or climate change (which was already becoming a popular buzzword in those years). These external causes served well as a way to escape from any responsibility - and to justify their inaction.
In an article on The Ecologist, Alex Kirby writes that the severe 2006-2010 drought in Syria may have contributed to the civil war. Indeed it may - but this is to disregard the immediate cause - the disastrous over-exploitation of the fragile steppe ecosystem.
Before my time in Syria, as early as the 1970s, international aid organizations such as the UN-FAO had also flagged the dire need to not apply profit-maximization principles and to therefore not over-exploit the fragile ecosystem of the Syrian steppe.
Denial versus the power of an image
Finally, tired of repeating the same words all the time, I resorted to showing the government staff a self-explanatory picture taken in March 2008, a year of intense and dramatic drought. An image speaks more than a million words, I thought.
The picture (above right) portrayed a fence separating a steppe terrain in two parts: the area on the left was open to sheep grazing; the area on the right had been instead protected for at least 10 years. The image revealed a lunar rocky landscape on the left, and a blossoming pasture on the right.
The image simply evidences, without need for any words, that the Syrian steppe ecosystem is perfectly adapted to cope with droughts - yes, even with extreme droughts exacerbated by climate change. However, this landscape can succumb easily to human irrationality and indifference. In front of that image, even the most verbose governmental staff would come to a pause - the jaw dropped for a moment.
In 2014, three years after social unrest first and then a brutal civil war erupted in the country, Francesca de Chatel published an interesting essay arguing that the inability of the Syrian government to tackle the rampant steppe's ecological crisis, steadily unfolded over the course of 50 years of sustained mismanagement, has been one of the key triggers of the armed conflict in the country.
She mentions as other critical triggers the too fast economic liberalization plan, high rates of unemployment and corruption, and, sure enough, a long-term and suffocating lack of freedom.
Over-exploitation of an ecosystem
The Syrian steppe covers 55% of the country's territory. This vast steppe land, together with portions from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, has been grazed sustainably bynomadic indigenous pastoralists (Bedouins) for centuries (if not more). Each tribe and clan was linked to certain seasonal pastures and this ensured the sustainability of the grazing - a practice finely calibrated on the need of plant regeneration.
These pastoralists of Arabia are known to have been pioneers in establishing 'protected areas' (hema): certain pastures were relieved from grazing, permanently or temporary, in order to allow keeping the whole ecosystem healthy and functional.
The beginning of the ecological degradation and destruction came with the modern state, so keen to uncritically import ideas of maximization of agricultural yields from the Soviet Union: in particular the central government decided to nationalize the steppe in 1958, establishing de facto an open access system - a well known recipe for ecological disaster.
Through this arrangement the customary link between the natural resource and its user was interrupted - abruptly disowning the traditional ecological knowledge of this ancient people. The pastures, not managed and protected anymore by the tribes, started to be over-grazed by free-ranging pastoralists.
A major role in this unfolding disaster was played by affluent urban investors who threw thousands of livestock into the steppe turning the grazing into a large-scale, totally unsustainable, industrial practice.
A similar sort of story of gross mismanagement took place in the eastern part of the Syria's steppe land, the territory east to the Euphrates, allocated to intensive agriculture via irrigation through underground water.
Water has been pumped from limited underground reserves without much control for decades - so that wells had to be dug every year deeper and deeper with increasing consumption of fuel.
Year by year, desertification sets in
The alternation of wet and dry periods (sometimes lasting up to 5-7 years) is a key structural and natural feature of this kind of environment. The relentless ecological degradation of this semi-arid fragile ecosystem produced a gradual and steady decrease of its resilience in the face of cycles of droughts made increasingly more severe and frequent by a long-term regional drying pattern linked to the greenhouse effects.
Note that increasing the resilience of ecosystems is actually one of the key natural solutions as adaptation to climate change, as it is currently referred to within the circles of climate change international aid work.
While in the past the steppe was able to recover even following intense periods of droughts, during the past decade pastoralists and farmers have started to complain about a sharp and ineluctable reduction in soil fertility and an increase of frequency of fierce dust storms due to erosion.
An evident desertification process has been on display across the steppe land for quite some time. Recommendations to reduce the ecological pressure on this fragile environment - from myself and others - went unheard.
Ecological crisis fans the flames of rebellion
Following a recent cycle of intense drought during 2006-2010, the agriculture system eventually collapsed in eastern Syria greatly facilitated by an abrupt halt of government subsidies and consequent soaring prices of fuel for wells.
At the same time, the ecological impoverishment of the rangelands reached unheard-of levels. "The drought only brought to light a man-made disaster", said a local journalistfrom eastern Syria to the International Crisis Group in 2009.
This combined ecological crisis of croplands and rangelands created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the rural areas of the country, followed by massive internal displacements, that the government clearly failed to tackle and manage.
For the first time ever Syria, known to be proudly autonomous in terms of food production (and actually even exporting food), had to rely on a massive international emergency food aid in 2008.
It is therefore not a coincidence that the uprising in 2011 started in provincial towns rather than in the major urban centres of Damascus and Aleppo, Francesca De Chatel argues, aptly defining the rebellion as a "rural Intifada" - one in which Bedouin tribes of steppe origin played a key role.
The same sort of conclusions were reached in analysing the triggers of the Darfur war that that took place from 2003 to 2010 not far from Syria. Darfur suffered from precisely the same sort of over-exploited semi-arid ecosystem, while one again rural and indigenous people were the victims, including nomadic pastoralists.
Life-enabling ecological conditions first
Only in recent times has the key role of ecological conditions in shaping the socio-economy of human populations and civilizations been fully acknowledged and understood. Thanks to a solid western 'modern' cultural legacy, until a short time ago, there had been quite strong resistance preventing an appreciation of the link.
Still, in our current consumerist society's mainstream (sub)culture, nature is perceived as nothing else than a commodity or an ornament for National Geographic covers. But certainly our lifestyle and economy is still completely dependent on available natural resources and on functional ecosystem services.
The good news seems to be that eventually and increasingly these days, the link between ecology and economy (and socio-politics) is analysed, elaborated and underlined. After all, ecology and economy have the same suffix 'eco', derived from the Greek oikos (home), not by coincidence.
Mismanagement of earth's resources
Climate change is a major threat to the whole human civilization in the short and medium term - as it is already emerging in the eastern Mediterranean and Syria, and other parts of the world. This ultimate challenge is like the last call for humanity to start reforming deeply an anti-life economic system, as well argued by Naomi Klein in her last book This Changes Everything.
Hopefully, this new awareness will be the basis for a new era in which the economy is deeply reformed in line with the principles of ecology. The time has come to wisely adapt the 'norms and rules of the house' (= Economy in Greek) to the foundation principles of the house (Ecology= 'knowledge of the house' in Greek) - and not the other way round, as we have thought and done during the past 200 years.
Otherwise, we will simply re-enact once again the same kind of drama that seemingly has already occurred innumerable times on the planet in the course of the human civilization parable. Civilizations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they did not change.
As David Suzuki once observed: "There are some things in the world we can't change - gravity, entropy, the speed of light, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die.
"Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature, we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere."
Certainly - with the notable exception of the ancient wisdom embodied in the tribal memories of indigenous peoples - Homo sapiens does not excel in having a long-lasting memory.
Also by Gianluca Serra on The Ecologist: 'The Northern Bald Ibis is extinct in the Middle East - but we can't blame it on IS'.
Gianluca Serra has been engaged in front line biodiversity conservation as a researcher, civil servant, practitioner and activist during the past two decades internationally, on the five continents. During 2000-2011 he has worked in Palmyra, Syria, under various umbrellas (UN, EU, NGOs, volunteer). He assisted the Syrian Government in prompting biodiversity conservation in the country and in establishing the first protected areas.