The war in Syria will end. But the migrant crisis won’t

The fighting in Syria is a symptom of the migrant crisis, not its cause. Merryn Somerset Webb talks to author and journalist James Fergusson.


British troops in Kajaki, Afghanistan: it was all about the water

This was the week that Germany cracked. Last week, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, opened the gates to the world's refugees, saying that her country, having planned to take around 450,000 this year, now expected to welcome a million displaced people. This week, with no beds left in Bavaria's reception centres and a 300,000-strong backlog of asylum applications, she imposed emergency border controls. She isn't the first.

Austria and Slovakia have tightened their border controls too, Hungary has erected a fence along its border with Serbia, and the Netherlands has announced spot checks on migrants. Can it be that Europe just isn't going to cope with this vast influx? If so, is Schengen the free movement of people within Europe and hence much of the European dream, dead?

For the answers I went to see James Fergusson, author, journalist, expert on Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia (his most recent book is Somalia: The World's Most Dangerous Place) and on the politics of water and (conveniently) my next-door neighbour.

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A movement without end

Look at how the war began a riot over the misallocation of water by corrupt governments in the south then snowballed into a general uprising. Every major battle since has been for control of a dam. "There is no political control in that part of the world unless you control the rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates that's why IS's headquarters are at Raqqa, in Syria Raqqa is right next to the biggest dam in Syria, the Assad Dam." This makes Turkey a vital link in this conflict: the Tigris and the Euphrates don't rise in Syria or Iraq, they rise in Turkey which "is also damming these rivers like there is no tomorrow".

You can make a similar case in Yemen. The trouble there started with some boys spraying graffiti. They were arrested and became a focal point for unrest. But the graffiti was again about the mis-allocation of reservoir water for irrigation. One of the main gripes of the Shia Houthi who now control the capital, Sana'a, is the removal of their fuel subsidies. But why do they need those subsidies? Because they are farmers and they use it to drill for water. Without the fuel they can't do that and they can't farm. So they invaded the capital.That kicked off a much wider sectarian war. "But it began with water."

It's the same in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the West we obsess about Islamic extremism, but the rise of IS, al-Qaeda and the like is "symptomatic of a problem" running out of water.In Helmand, where British troopsfought the Taliban for months, they were really fighting for the river the main battle was about getting a turbine up to the Kajaki Dam. Mass droughts had shrunk the usable land in the area, so competing tribes were turning to the most profitable crop out there opium. But this cut the food supply and caused no end of conflict which the Taliban ruthlessly exploited.

Now take this thought water as the cause and war as the symptom and turn to sub-Saharan Africa. This, says Fergusson, is where we have the real problem. The population is currently about 900 million. By 2100 it is forecast to be four billion. It won't get that high (growth slows as the middle class grows). But the number gives us a sense of direction. That matters, because the land can't support those people.

Take Mali: 15 million people live there, but it won't be long before it's a desert. It might be climate change, it might not be but it's happening. Where are those people going to go? "And what of the people trying to leave Nigeria, Niger, bits of west Africa, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan? It looks like they are headed this way."

Schengen is 'toast'

There is no solution to the lack of water beyond global co-operation to provide technical support (desalination, etc); to transfer the excess food of the north to the dry south in a better way than we have over the last 50 years; and to break through the deadening power of corruption. That isn't going to happen any more than we are going to find a way to turn all 31,600 miles of European border into a fortress.

We are lucky here in northern Europe, says James. We are in a kind of a lifeboat above a drying world. But we are also "in this invidious position of having to decide who takes up the places". The current migration crisis is horrible. But it is also sending us a message about the future. There is huge political and social turmoil ahead and no obvious way to prevent it.

Listen to the unedited audio of my talk with James.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.