Apr 9, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Eating up the Arab Spring

Drought in Yemen

What if on top of political and economic grievances, other major reasons behind the revolts of the Arab Spring were disputes over food and water resources? The argument is not new, but it was at least rekindled in a very compelling way by Thomas Friedman just a couple days ago at the New York Times.

We’ve known for years that those food and water struggles are coming and will have violent political consequences. But not too many experts out there are ready to admit that such a broad upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East might have more than an indirect relation to them, and the topic has not received much attention lately. However, if Friedman is right and we don’t work on these issues, we might be missing an important point going forward. He says that if we focus only on political and economic stresses, and not on the less visible “environmental, population and climate ones, “we will never be able to help stabilize these societies.”

Rami Zurayk, an agronomy professor at the American University of Beirut, was already telling the PBS last year that the jump in food prices was an important factor mobilizing people in the Arab Spring. “If you look at Tunisia, for example, you see that the Tunisian uprising started in the rural area,” where many small farmers live and need better means to support their families. “And the Syrian uprising started in Daraa, which incidentally is in the center of the Horan plains [in the south near Jordan] …one of the centers of origin of wheat and wheat farming in this part of the world”. A place where, added Friedman, Syrian farmers “were demanding the right to buy and sell land near the border, without having to get permission from corrupt security officials.”

It all comes up to the idea that environmental and climate changes have “eroded the social contract between citizens and the state”. It makes sense. If changes caused droughts, reductions on food production and other such problems, and if old authoritarian regimes, whose credibility was already exhausted, weren’t able to respond to increased demands, it would be easy to have the grievances translated into more social and political unrest.

Considering this argument, we can expect unrests of the type we are witnessing now to come back periodically, as new governments fail to solve environmental issues bound to get worse and worse. The Arab Forum for Environment and Development cautions that the region will face severe water scarcity as early as 2015 and that this will have profound social, political and economic ramifications.

What does all this mean? Proponents of the environmental and populational cause affirm that besides addressing democratization, it is just as crucial to work on agricultural, irrigation and water projects in those regions. Some go as far as suggesting new regulatory frameworks for water consumption and water pricing mechanisms. This is something international groups can have a deep effect on, if they focus more efforts into it. But are they doing that or missing the opportunity?

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1 Comment

  • Absolutely right. Climate change has the potential to cause severe political disruptions around the world. It’s going to be one of the main governance – and security – challenges over the coming decades. Wait till Bangladesh gets it’s Hurricane Katrina – it has the potential to displace millions in a very short period of time. We’ve never experienced anything like it.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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