Regarding climate change, the severity of the current drought in Syria, Iraq, and Iran is no longer an unusual occurrence
A recent rapid attribution analysis by the World Weather Attribution service reveals that the ongoing drought in the Middle East, affecting Iraq, Iran, and Syria, is primarily driven by high temperatures caused by climate change. This prolonged drought, characterized by low rainfall and extreme heat, has led to crop failures and widespread water shortages in the region, resulting in food insecurity for millions of people.
The study indicates that climate change intensified the drought between July 2020 and June 2023, primarily due to the drying effects of high temperatures. In a world without climate change, the dry period would not have reached the severity required to be classified as a drought. Climate change also increased the likelihood of such events occurring.
For instance, in today’s climate, the drought in Iran was a one-in-five year event. However, without the influence of climate change, it would have been a much rarer one-in-80 year event. In the Tigris-Euphrates river basin encompassing parts of Iraq and Syria, climate change elevated the drought’s probability from a one-in-250 to a one-in-10 year event.
The study emphasizes that droughts of this intensity have become more frequent due to climate change, stressing that the situation is “not rare anymore.”
The severity of the drought is compounded by other factors, including conflict, inadequate water management, and land degradation, which have exacerbated its impact on the affected regions.
In the Fertile Crescent, once known for its fertile soils and ideal conditions for agriculture, the situation has led to crop failures, food shortages, and water scarcity, particularly in countries like Syria, where a significant portion of the wheat crop relies on rainfall. The resulting spike in food prices has plunged millions of people into poverty and hunger.
In Iraq, the lack of rainfall during the 2020-21 season led to significant reductions in water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with severe consequences for agriculture. Similarly, Iran has experienced a sharp decline in rainfall, resulting in shortages of drinking water, crop failure, and low hydropower output.
The drought has been exacerbated by intense heat in the Middle East, with temperatures frequently exceeding 50°C in some regions.
To understand the impact of climate change, the study utilized a measure called the “standardized precipitation evapotranspiration index” (SPEI) to analyze agricultural drought. The findings indicate that the 2020-23 drought was the second worst on record in both Iran and the Tigris-Euphrates river basin in Syria and Iraq.
The analysis applied attribution science to identify the influence of climate change on the drought’s severity. It revealed that climate change has made the droughts more intense, to the extent that, without climate change, they might not even be classified as droughts.
While temperature trends have been strongly influenced by climate change, rainfall changes, while relatively extreme, are not necessarily driven by it. This underscores the key role of naturally low precipitation coinciding with extremely high temperatures in causing the drought.
Additionally, factors such as poor water management, land-use changes, rapid urbanization, and conflict contribute to water insecurity across the region, further exacerbating the impact of the drought. The situation has also led to water-related tensions between countries in the Middle East, with dam construction and water overuse being sources of contention. For example, in Iraq, the primary sources of water, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, originate in Turkey and flow through Syria before reaching Iraq. Development of hydropower projects along these rivers has significantly reduced water inflow to Iraq.