A river of toxic waste flows through Syria

July 1, 2020

Rivers of crude oil and oil waste are flowing through northeast Syria, with no solution in sight for the thousands of people affected by the pollution.

A River of Death, a new report by PAX, shows how persistent pollution from a degrading oil facility has led to tens-of-thousands of barrels of oil flowing into canals and creeks, and ending up in a 160km long river. Locals fear for the health of their communities and the dangerous effects from the polluted soil and ground water. Meanwhile farmers have lost entire crop fields as seasonal rains have flooded the polluted canals, creeks and rivers, spreading the oil over thousands of hectares of land.

 “I live in constant fear of what this pollution will do to us,” a local villager told PAX. “Everyone here is scared.  If I had the chance to live somewhere else, I wouldn´t  hesitate to leave this place at once.” Other people living downstream express the same concern, and are worried about their health and their future.

Problem after problem

Nine years of war have damaged oil facilities and hampered production and maintenance of oil fields. At the samet time, the oil industry in this part of Syria is an essential source of income for the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration and the linked Syrian Democratic Forces. Current tensions with Turkey and the Syrian regime continue to block the importation of materials for reconstruction and capacity management, while a lack of prioritization from local authorities has deepened this environmental disaster. The crumbling oil infrastructure in this area causes frequent oil spills from broken pipelines and leaking oil tanks. 

Thousands affected

Through environmental open-source investigation, satellite analysis and interviews with people on the ground, A River of Death demonstrates the importance of sustained monitoring of how the conflict is impacting water and agriculture in the region. as well as the wider environmental problems. The report finds that the health and livelihoods of thousands of families living near the river are affected by the oil pollution, but little has been done to address this.

No one protecting the people

The US-led coalition stated they are there to protect oil, yet no one is protecting civilians from the oil pollution that is now festering in the region. Local people are suffering and we need bold action by all responsible actors and States to come up with a sustainable solution. “ says Wim Zwijnenburg, Humanitarian Disarmament Project leader at PAX and author of the report.

The toxic legacy of the conflict will echo for years , continuing to dangerously impact people’s lives and livelihoods. There remain difficult questions on who is responsible for the pollution and wider health risks, and how the problems will be addressed through clean-up and remediation of affected areas. The report provides key recommendations to local authorities, States and international organisations, urging them to act swiftly in taking measures to address these problems and save lives.

Read the report A River of Death
Read more on PAX´s work on conflict and the environment

Get involved with our peace work.
Subscribe to the PAX Action Alert.