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Climate SeCurity

The Arab Spring and World Food Prices


Andrew Holland November 2012
One of the most important events over the past decade has been the Arab Spring of 2011 that brought down dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, and continues to reverberate through the region. Although the proximate cause of the unrest was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia, empirical evidence indicates that a spike in local food prices across the Arab world was responsible for setting the stage.1 Over the last two decades, there is a strong evidence that food price increases have led to increased political unrest.2 By late 2010, global food prices had increased by 40% over the year, largely due to drought and wildfire in grain exporting regions of Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as by unprecedented floods in grain-importing Pakistan. Although few of the protesters in Tahrir Square or fighting in Benghazi would have said that they were fighting because of food prices, the empirical evidence shows that high prices made riots much more likely. Syria is the most extreme example of how drought and food prices combined to foment unrest. The five years preceding the beginning of the unrest in the Spring of 2011 (2006-2010) saw a drought unparalleled in both length and severity in recent Syrian history.3

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Since at least 1900 (when modern recordkeeping began), droughts had only lasted one or two years at most. This drought caused an unprecedented mass migration of 1.5 million people from rural areas to urban centers. The severity of the drought was increased by the inability of the Assad regime to prepare for or adapt to the extreme conditions.

For decades, the Assad regime both father and son had ignored water conservation issues and agriculture in general.4 When the drought destroyed farming communities, it sent new migrants to the cities most of which were not from the ruling Alawite minority. This placed great strain on urban populations, and exacerbated ethnic and religious strife. This strain is evident in the ongoing conflict within Syria. ------------------

Andrew Holland is the Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project
with assistance from ASP Adjunct Junior Fellow Yong Wang

Read more on the national security implications of climate change in the Climate Security Report

Endnotes
1. 2. 3. 4. Bellemare, Marc F., Rising Food Prices, Food Price Volatility, and Political Unrest (June 28, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi. org/10.2139/ssrn.1874101 (accessed September 15, 2012). M. Lagi, K.Z. Bertrand, Y. Bar-Yam, The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East. arXiv: 1108.2455, August 10, 2011. http://necsi.edu/research/social/foodcrises.html (accessed September 15, 2012). Mohtadi, Shahrzad, Bulliten of the Atomic Scientists, Climate change and the Syrian uprising August 16, 2012. http://thebulletin.org/ web-edition/features/climate-change-and-the-syrian-uprising (accessed September 15, 2012). Francesco Femia & Caitlin Werrell, Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest. The Center for Climate and Security, February 29, 2012. http://climateandsecurity.org/2012/02/29/syria-climate-change-drought-and-social-unrest/ (accessed September 15, 2012).

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