by Sumaiya Sayeed '20
Brute forces of nature meet civilized people. People cannot handle natural disasters. Chaos ensues.
Fear of disasters can be judged by how close they are to us and how devastating they can be. This fear of disasters leads to safety measures by individuals, such as storing canned foods and flashlights in a cellar in tornado-prone zones or building architecturally sound buildings in regions likely to be affected by earthquakes. More importantly, these fears drive political change, legislation, and economic distribution plans. Unfortunately, the magnitude of a disaster can often be overlooked; it is much easier to fear getting hurt by another group or person, than fear the destruction of the Earth, a place we take for granted. In looking at regions around the world, particularly in Ancient Egypt and in modern-day Syria, it soon becomes clear that human populations, while always growing and becoming self-sustaining, are still very much tied to the earth that they live on; the unpredictability and extremeness of natural disasters must be met with appropriate economic and social responses.
In Ancient Egypt, during the period of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, there were many years of low levels of Nile flooding. The ensuing blow on agricultural production led to low food supplies and unrest. The study is reminiscent of another region in history, in which drought had disastrous effects harmed many people. In 2007, Syria’s drought, which resulted from lower rainfall and an already waning groundwater supply, displaced many agrarian populations and caused them to move to cities. The urban overcrowding, crime, and inadequate infrastructure, among many other problems, led to unrest and eventual war.
The two problems differ slightly. A publication published recently linked the flooding (or lack thereof) of the Nile to volcanic eruptions occurring around the world. According to data collected on the Egyptian era from 622 AD to 1902 AD, the country a certain number of years of less water. Considering that this was a fairly long time range, the researchers extrapolated this data to the time period in question and estimated the amount of time that precipitation was stifled. Then, utilizing the information from volcanic records, they estimated that the volcanic eruptions matched the drought trends. Once the link was established between volcanic activity and drought, it was only documentation of social unrest that was needed, and indeed, shortages caused riots.
The example of the Nile River establishes both climate and government as the key factors in national turmoil and can be used as a framework for analyzing the multiple factors, even warning signs, of the mayhem that ensued. In Egypt, the scarcity of water did not trigger revolts immediately; rather, ethnic conflict, poor resource allocation, and social unrest ultimately led to larger political impacts. Plus, not every period of eruption-induced drought led to conflict. After the 46 and 44 B.C. eruptions, Cleopatra’s food management may have prevented such social uprisings. In Syria, the drying land, the warmer climate, the harsh drought should have all been warning signs that action should have been taken to mitigate the loss and eventual dissatisfaction citizens would feel.
For Syria, due to variability in weather and presence of dry periods in the past, making the claim that climate change led to the drought is itself a large claim. A recent paper explores the connection between climate change and the Syrian drought, stating that the trends of the warmer environment in the region matched their predicted models of the changing earth. While causation was difficult to prove, data collected on global precipitation, surface temperature, and simulations confirmed that rising temperatures worldwide may have affected the drought in the nation. Due to the drought, people in agricultural zones moved to urban areas, causing increased unemployment, poor waste management, and social unrest. To add on to this, the regime of Al-Assad, who came into power in 2001, took away subsidies and did not meet the needs of urban areas, where the population began concentrating, which instigated the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
Getting attention for an issue for preventative measures is difficult due to our inability to foresee devastation in the future. In countries with few resources and small global dominance, even when a pressing issue has taken place, soliciting attention still takes time. Media coverage and widespread conversation of Syria did not start until refugees started pouring into European countries circa 2015, when instead the presence of refugees and conflict should have urged other nations to take action many years prior.
The overwhelmingly difficult climate trends, when coupled with faulty political action, devastated large groups of people in Syria in the present day and in Egypt two thousand years go. On home turf, we may feel immune to socioeconomic problems due to environmental concerns, but both the presence of climate change and the possibility of natural disaster should push for changes to be better prepared when disasters strike. Are the values of fair allotment and distribution part of our government? If we don’t support the people affected, how long can we go before our society begins to crumble?