The war in Syria has been ferocious and deadly. In 2016, the death toll was estimated at 400,000. In Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State (IS) has destroyed cities and displaced around 3.3 million people. Yet beyond the immediate consequences of these conflicts, the environmental degradation in both countries could have a far-reaching impact.
In a country at war, preserving the environment is not usually a high priority. However, it is a vital issue that must be addressed before rebuilding begins. According to Living under a black sky, a report published by the Dutch peace organization PAX in November 2017, Iraq was severely affected even before the [IS] attacks in 2014 by the legacy of three wars and climate change, resulting in weak environmental governance and more frequent droughts. ‘Since then, you can also add illegal oil refineries, spills, and fires, as well as debris, dust, and decline of water infrastructure,’ the report said.
“We have been monitoring what’s happening in Iraq since IS took over,” Wim Zwijnenburg, PAX’s project leader in humanitarian disarmament, told Fanack Chronicle. “There was a lot of fighting around the oil refineries in the northern territories; we noticed severe pollution. When the Iraqi army pushed back IS, they started to set oil wells on fire, flood areas, damage wells, and pipelines, and pollute water.”
According to the report, the most visibly affected areas are the Hamrin Mountains, where two oilfields were on fire for two years, Qayyarah, where the last fire was extinguished in March 2017, the contaminated River Tigris, Baiji, whose oil refinery is severely damaged, and Kirkuk, where almost all the oil infrastructure has been attacked. By pushing back IS, the coalition also contributed to oil spills and damaged infrastructure, adding to the pollution created by the jihadist group. Agricultural lands and water sources were compromised as a result.
IS also set the Mishraq sulfur plant on fire, releasing toxic smoke that resulted in the hospitalization of more than 1,000 people, 20 of whom later died. Other sites used to produce chemical weapons or mismanaged during the war have been hit by airstrikes, resulting in long-lasting toxic air and ground pollution.
“In most populated areas like Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi, there will be a mixture of all kinds of waste, which will affect the exposed population or workers removing rubble, as well as military remnants, destroyed tanks or vehicles containing chemicals,” Zwijnenburg said. “What’s obvious now is that we need to start monitoring health and the environment to see what the actual impact is for the government to find solutions. From a survey we conducted through our contacts on the ground, we discovered that people in heavily affected areas are very concerned about the impact of pollution on health.”
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) helps countries like Iraq address the consequences of conflicts. In September 2017, the organization published a technical note about Mosul, in which it estimated that the quantity of conflict debris in the city is 11 million tons. “Environment can be used as a kind of weapon of war in that sort of strategy within a conflict to increase the damage to the local population,” Oli Brown, coordinator in UNEP’s disasters and conflicts subprogramme, told Fanack Chronicle. “It’s a tactic that has been used for thousands of years. The environment is always affected by war, and environmental damage, from our perspective, complicates recovery and worsens the humanitarian crisis. We see that very clearly in Iraq and Syria.”
In Syria, one of the most critical aspects of the environmental crisis is the illegal refineries – more than 10,000 in 2016, according to PAX – that are being set up all over the country. “Due to bombardments and lack of staff who fled or left the country, professional refineries have drastically cut back their production,” Zwijnenburg explained in the report. “At the same time, the demand for fuel for daily life remains high. Armed groups including the Islamic State encourage the makeshift refining because the groups earn money by selling the raw oil to the amateur refineries, and then taxing the fuel they produce.”
Brown has observed this kind of behavior in various conflicts, where the absence of governance and the rule of law in a difficult situation pushes local populations to develop coping mechanisms at the expense of their environment.
“Now, in Iraq, the government has to think about how to clean the zones of conflict and where to put the rubble, in a way that doesn’t create more problems by polluting water sources,” he said. “In these kinds of post-conflict situations, you are keen to get people back to their homes, working again, getting the economy going, meeting humanitarian needs, and rebuilding. But it’s worth also thinking about dealing with this toxic legacy.”
Unfortunately, the environment is frequently a secondary concern for people recovering from war. In Lebanon, for instance, garbage treatment remains an issue nearly three decades after the end of the civil war in 1990. “There is no obligation for a post-conflict state to actually follow the international recommendations for the environment,” Doug Weir, manager of the toxic remnants of War Project, told Fanack Chronicle. “All these environmental problems need money to be fixed; that can be quite expensive.”
At the third United Nations Environment Assembly on 4-6 December 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya, the Iraqi government tabled a draft conflict pollution resolution, titled “Pollution control in areas affected by terrorist operations and armed conflicts,” which reaffirms core environmental and rights principles, describes the nature of the problem, and proposes how UNEP and other actors could help address the generation and harm from toxic remnants of war. The resolution was passed on 5 December 2017, potentially sending a positive signal to other post-conflict countries that will almost certainly need help in the future, such as Syria.
In Syria, the Environmental Toll of War Beginning to Emerge
The impact on Syria’s environment, its natural resources, and the people who depend on them is becoming increasingly pressing, Fanack states. Of course, humanitarian suffering should be at the forefront of the analysis. Still, at the same time, the environmental impact deserves a more prominent place at the conflict analysis table, as there are direct links with peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and socio-economic reconstruction efforts. Fanack’s journalists examine Syria’s environment and the people who depend on it critical challenges.
The decision in October 2019 by US President Donald Trump to leave a small number of American troops in Syria to ‘protect’ oilfields put the spotlight back on this less visible legacy of war. The slow collapse of industrial oil activities from 2012 onwards resulted in the acute and long-term environmental and health problems. This was accelerated by the intense bombing campaign of Islamic State (IS) targets initiated by the US-led coalition, quickly followed by Russia’s carpet bombing of entire oil refineries. This campaign to deny IS access to oil revenues went on for years, leaving thousands of smoldering pumping jacks, wellheads, oil trucks and refineries and a charred landscape.
The destruction of professional refineries and storage facilities resulted in unsustainable coping strategies by armed groups and civilians, who established clusters of makeshift refineries, a practice that spread like wildfire throughout Syria. The number of workers, including many children, at these sites was likely in the tens of thousands at their peak in 2015/2016. They faced daily exposure to toxic fumes and hazardous substances and have ongoing concerns about how this will affect their health.
Most of these clusters were shut down in 2017 after protests from communities. However, there remain a large number of active clusters throughout non-government-controlled areas, stretching from Idlib to Hasakah. In the meantime, abandoned makeshift refineries and pools of oil waste and tar lakes in eastern Syria are the visible reminders of this aspect of the war, and local communities have been left wondering how badly their local ground and surface water are affected by oil-linked chemical residues. Current discussions over the exploitation and revenue distribution of oilfields in north-east Syria controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces remain opaque.
Scramble for Syria’s natural resources
Damage to the oil industry and subsequent pollution is just one of the many and most visible environmental consequences plaguing Syria. The war has also left a trail of destruction that is affecting water sources, agriculture, forestry, wildlife and biodiversity. Natural resources such as petroleum but also phosphates, chrome, various ores, asphalt and other minerals could be a source of future conflicts as states and armed groups scramble for minerals, gas and oilfields as well as access to forests and agricultural lands.
With an estimated $250 billion needed for reconstruction, states and foreign companies are vying for contracts for resource extraction. In particular, Russian and Iranian companies are eyeing the exploitation of mines, oilfields and critical infrastructure. Prior to the conflict, heavy industries were already one of the major environmental polluters. Experience from past conflicts shows that a lack of proper management, assessment and regulations in the post-conflict phase could lead to worsened environmental outcomes.
The environment essential for survival
During wars and armed conflicts, environmental infrastructure is frequently targeted. Irrigation systems, pumping and filtration stations or sewage plants are essential for a range of civilian and economic activities. Access to clean water is critical for public health and the prevention of communicable diseases, while damage to irrigation can directly impact agriculture and food security, as was seen in Iraq and Yemen.
Droughts and mismanagement prior to the conflict had already had disastrous consequences for rural and urban communities in Syria. The subsequent fighting, displacement and collapse of agricultural infrastructure has contributed to worsened crop yields, water use and food security. Various United Nations (UN) agencies are working with the government to assess Syria’s natural resources, and in particular agriculture production, using remote-sensing technology to learn about the state of food security. The results of the assessment will guide decision-making regarding irrigation management, crop assessment and potentially also the evaluation of plant health.
Rebuilding from the rubble
Sieges, bombings and intense fighting have laid waste to cities and town throughout Syria. More than 53% of the population living in urban areas has been affected by the destruction. Apart from the direct problems of displacement, urban damage also impacts critical infrastructure that can result in environmental health risks. Moreover, the vast amounts of rubble can pose a severe health risk in themselves. Debris is often mixed with industrial or medical waste and can contain a range of hazardous chemicals or heavy metals to which first responders, clean-up workers and civilians can be exposed.
According to a 2017 World Bank study of damage to ten cities, ‘27% of the housing stock has been impacted, with 7% destroyed and 20% partially damaged’. The study also identified severe damage to medical and educational facilities. The UN’s satellite analysis support program UNOSAT identified 109,39 damaged structures in a 2018 overview, while a 2019 thematic update conducted by REACH in cooperation with UNOSAT-UNITAR of 16 towns and cities provides a more detailed picture. The millions of tons of rubble will likely pose significant risks to the local environment, as will the efforts to extract natural resources for cement used to reconstruct urban areas, as past experiences in Lebanon and Iraq demonstrated.
Governance and nature
The collapse of governance systems in towns and cities has resulted in serious problems around waste collection and storage, leading to the outbreak of communicable diseases. While the United Nations Development Programme has contributed to rebuilding this in government-controlled areas, in non-government-controlled areas, there are still critical issues around waste dumping sites that have resulted in sustained health concerns from air pollution from waste burning and groundwater being affected by solid waste leachate.
Lack of governance combined with decreased fuel production and a rising number of displaced people have also contributed to significant deforestation in western Syria as firewood collection, charcoal production and uncontrolled commercial logging have increased. To what extent the conflict has affected the country’s rich biodiversity has not been independently researched, but according to Syria’s submission to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2016, several protected areas, protected plants and animal species have been impacted.
Road to rehabilitation
A thorough and comprehensive assessment is needed to understand the full extent of damage to Syria’s environment and the environmental health risks for civilians. The Middle East as a whole is facing crucial challenges regarding environmental degradation as a result of climate change, hydro-politics and lack of proper natural resources management. This brings with it serious direct and long-term security risks, hampers reconstruction and can foster more tensions with authorities over access to natural resources and responsibilities for dealing with environmental legacies.
In Syria, clean-up of environmental hotspots, rehabilitation of affected areas and sustainable reconstruction are necessary to alleviate the burden on the Syrian people and provide them with opportunities to rebuild their lives and livelihoods in a safe and healthy environment.You may read our author’s column about the environmental consequences of war on the example of Ukrainian Donbas here.