Syria’s war impacts environment
Damascus - Tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land in the eastern governorates of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Hasakah — Syria’s breadbasket — have become uncultivable because of pollutants from large-scale primitive oil refining practices by militant groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS).
Officials say the highest levels of cancers in Syria were reported in those governorates in the last four years.
Additional environmental damage includes millions of trees cut down across the country but especially in forest areas on the Syrian coast, due to military operations and overcutting for heating purposes.
Cultivation in the Syrian desert, initiated to stop sands from reaching nearby urban areas, has halted. Irrigation networks, which are part of the Euphrates Projects in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, were damaged and water has stopped flowing in many of them. In eastern governorates, the many primitive “burners” refine crude oil by heating it to extract derivatives.
Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Nazira Sarkis said poisonous emissions, including gases and smoke, are produced when minerals in crude oil’s water content are burned.
Other pollutants, including radioactive materials such as radon and radium, are also present, she said, adding: “The half-life of such radioactive materials can be up to hundreds of years. Their pollution can reach the air and spread with wind before falling on soil and plants and reaching waterways.”
Sources in Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside said that more than 1,000 large and small “burners” are in use in villages and towns on both banks of the Euphrates.
“Primitive oil production by armed groups in the beginning of the Syrian crisis and by ISIS now has brought damage to the region,” said Deir ez-Zor Director-General for Agriculture Mahmoud Hayo. “It has had a major negative impact on agriculture and the livestock. Native and natural life has been destroyed.”
Some 73 island reserves — called hawaij —have been damaged in the Euphrates, he said. “They existed between the borders of Raqqa governorate and the Syrian-Iraqi borders,” he said. “Some were more than 100 hectares in area and included rare plants and animals… Residents and militants cut trees and exploited the hawaij.”
Irrigation canals in the Euphrates Projects were misused too, Hayo said by telephone from Deir ez-Zor.
“Water was overused, leading to soil salinisation, which means that large agricultural areas are now uncultivable,” he said. “Many farmers are out of business because agricultural materials are either hard to find or too expensive.”
Abed Najem El-Obeid, the health care director in the city, said residents suffer high rates of cancers, believed to be linked to increasing pollution.
“Cancers, especially lung and skin cancers, as well as fetal malformations, are being reported in regions outside the government’s control in the countryside,” he told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview.
“The numbers are very high compared to 2011 (when the Syrian revolution started). It is hard to give specific numbers because of a lack of statistics and inaccurate registrations.”
He said emissions by oil burners were the obvious cause of the health problems.
In the governorates of Raqqa and Hasakah, primitive oil burners are reported at lower numbers but still numerous enough to harm the environment. Local sources in Mansoura, in Raqqa’s western countryside, said hundreds of burners operated in less than 10 sq. km. In an area of 50 sq. km around the burners, the soil has become obviously darker, the sources said.
By the end of 2015, all burners stopped working because air strikes by a coalition of foreign countries had destroyed ISIS tankers carrying crude oil from Deir ez-Zor fields to Raqqa burners.
“The burners in Mansoura and other parts of the western countryside of Raqqa worked for three years, contributing to a major environmental disaster,” an agricultural engineer from Tabaqa in the governorate said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Last year was supposed to be a good harvest season but trees did not give fruit as expected because they were covered with soot from the burners. Even livestock has been blackened.”
Hundreds of thousands of trees were cut down in the governorates of Tartus and Latakia on the Syrian coast. Some wood was used for heating but most was sold. Forests in the governorates, as well as the countryside of the inland city of Hama, disappeared. “Syrian forests that survived warfare did not survive the axes of traders in wood and charcoal,” said Ibrahim Ahmad, an engineer from Tartus.
“Syria is heading for a major environmental disaster,” said Yahiya Oweida, head of the Association for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development. “Syria’s environment underwent systematic destruction.”
Cleaning the soil needs very complicated efforts he said, pointing to the looting of wastewater treatment stations as another problem, adding: “Reversing the disaster needs efforts by several nations, not mere associations.”