Eastern Syria’s struggle with water shortages and pollution

July 19, 2021

The ‘breadbasket’ of Syria is facing serious droughts and damage to its ecosystems from years of conflict pollution. Millions of people are facing the consequences of declining food and water security in the northeast of the country. The environmental consequences of armed conflicts are often underreported but are now outlined in a new PAX report, ‘War, Waste and Polluted Pastures’.

‘Armed conflicts lead to people getting killed, wounded and displaced, and often result in pollution and other environmental damage.  Added to their misery the growing impact of the climate crisis, that is being felt in these warzones more than before. In northeast Syria all of these problems are concentrated in one area with three million people’, said Wim Zwijnenburg, co-author of the report. “This has serious implications for both the public health of its citizens and the security and stability of the region”.

War, Waste and Polluted Pastures’ is the result of a two-year long research project, which included field work, open-source investigation, satellite imagery analysis and collaboration with local partners. The report demonstrates the rampant, widespread oil pollution, identifying at least 530 locations with spills at oil wells, and 690 clusters with thousands of makeshift refineries. Many of these were closed after protests by local communities in late 2017, but 20 clusters are still operational. At the time, thousands of people, including many children, were working in hazardous and toxic working conditions, though potentially hundreds are still working at risk. We also identified at least 20 large landfills, with hundreds of thousands of tons of solid waste, that risk impacting surface and groundwater with leachates.

Polluted water

Communities and de facto authorities in northeast Syria depend on the revenues from oil production yet have had to live in the smoke of the thousands of small refineries that blacked the skies for years. Civilians struggle to make ends meet, while larger oil facilities keep dumping oil waste in rivers and creeks, damaging ecosystems, and impacting the livelihoods of farmers as drinking and irrigation water are polluted. Over 227 kilometers of rivers and creeks are currently polluted in area similar in size to all of Lebanon.  

The next crisis is already on the horizon. In the last few months, the water level in Lake Assad, the source of the Euphrates River, has dropped by 5 meters as the influx of water from Turkey is stopped. This is caused by both lower rainfall and a political decision to stop the flow of water. However, this has huge regional consequences for access to drinking water, agriculture and hydropower. It can also exacerbate and lengthen drought, which in combination with armed attacks, can cause widespread wildfires, impacting harvest yields. At the same time, the few remaining forests are rapidly disappearing as people seek alternative fuel sources.  

International aid needed

In the report, PAX calls for a strong and ambitious Environment, Peace and Security agenda that address the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts in international aid and response efforts. This includes recommendations urging local authorities and the international community to address the issues identified above, by it through funding remediation efforts, capacity building and awareness raising.  In the meantime, PAX continues its work to train local environmentalists to identify and monitor environmental damage and advocate for solutions. Zwijnenburg notes, “The millions of people recovering from armed conflict in this area deserve international support to rebuild their lives and livelihoods in a clean and healthy environment. Furthermore, it is of grave importance for the whole region, including Turkey, Syria and Iraq, to face the water security challenges of now and in the future to make peace sustainable.“  

The work of our partners and findings of the report were also published by TIME Magazine in March 2021: https://time.com/5946800/syrian-war-environmental-impact/

For more information on PAX work on Environment, Peace and Security, see: https://paxforpeace.nl/what-we-do/programmes/conflict-environment

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