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A dead camel decomposes in a region hit by persistent drought, Ben Guardane, Tunisia, March 12, 2011 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

Are Climate Change and the Environment Driving Protests in Iran and Tunisia?

Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018

With new outbreaks of political protests in Iran and Tunisia, there are questions again about the role played by environmental issues, including human-caused climate change, in stoking unrest and discontent in the Middle East. In Iran, where protests have been underway since late December, observers are making explicit linkages, drawing the connection between water scarcity that displaces farmers and government corruption and incompetence. Many protesters do not believe their government has any credible policy responses to the environmental stress and, instead, encourages water usage policies that make the problem worse. In Tunisia, where demands for political and economic reforms are the focus of protests that began earlier this month, the connection to environmental and climate issues is more implicit, and not openly identified as a major factor for demonstrators.

At the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, before it turned into the tragic and protracted civil war, it became a conventional view that one major trigger of the revolt was a severe drought that drove farmers to the cities, which added to the political distress that then exploded in the streets. I was reluctant at the time to give too much weight to any one factor to explain why a repressed society finally reaches a breaking point. But scientists who have produced two major investigations into the drought have provided compelling evidence of its severity and potential to disrupt normal economic patterns, in one case concluding that from 1998 to 2012, the Levant region experienced its driest conditions in 500 years. ...

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