Beyond the death and destruction, Syria’s war has had massive environmental consequences, including high levels of pollution, the decimation of forests and a dangerous accumulation of waste in besieged areas.
Amid the regime’s failure – or refusal – to provide essential services for populations outside its control, local environmental initiatives in rebel- and Kurdish-controlled areas are bringing some hope to war-torn neighborhoods and helping people with the rising costs of such things as fuel and fertilizers.
Here we profile some of these “green initiatives.”
Recycling and Biomass in Besieged Ghouta
Ahmad Taha, a 54-year-old mechanical engineer from Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta, talks about the Ghouta plain in reverential tones. “In the past, we used to have an area with tens of thousands of olive, apricot and walnut trees,” he said. “The sun’s rays would not reach the ground.”
Since the war began, however, desperate people who could no longer afford oil or gas for heating exacerbated the environmental damage to the area by cutting down trees for fuel. “Since 2012 we have lost most of what was left of the trees due to logging for survival,” said Taha, who now lives in Gaziantep, Turkey.
The truth is that the plain, outside Damascus, considered to be one of the earliest agricultural sites in history, had been suffering for years, starting with a decision to route pipelines from a local sewage plant through the area. The plant, built in 1997, treated Damascus’ sewage, but the quality of the recycled water was not suitable for irrigation. “Gradually, the pipelines to the Adra sewage water treatment plant, which pass through this agricultural land, poisoned [the] water and trees,” Taha said.
Rim,* an environmental expert who once worked for the Syrian Ministry of Environment, said the expansion of informal settlements of lower-income migrants prior to the war caused the most damage. “Illegal workshops and factories have also increased in numbers,” she said, adding that the regime‘s “efforts to protect the agricultural land in Ghouta were ineffective or unimplemented” and that a plan to map the land for conservation purposes “remained mere ink on paper.”
Which is all to say that when the protests against the Syrian government began in 2011, the situation in this agricultural jewel was already in a precarious situation.
When the violence began, Taha and his activist friends decided to do what they could to protect the area and formed the Douma Local Council. They made a plan to prevent an environmental, health and agricultural catastrophe, especially if public services were halted, as was indeed the case when regime forces withdrew from the city and started to shell the area from a distance in October 2012.
The Douma Local Council’s reaction was quick. In a few days, municipal vehicles resumed working, removing domestic waste from the streets and hauling it to a new dump site. “They saved us from solid waste accumulation, creating jobs for citizens,” said Mohammed, a 26-year-old photographer.
The council also created a much-improved dump site that provided smaller villages with a way to dispose of their waste properly. “Before 2012, Douma had a proper landfill but no recycling operations,” said Rim. “However, the smaller surrounding villages did not have access to this service and used to burn their domestic waste.”
The Douma Council did not expect the siege of the city to last long. But by 2013, the waste at the landfill had exceeded its capacity, and residents started to complain about the odors and insects reaching urban areas.
Local council members consulted with engineers and residents and decided to transform the domestic waste into organic fertilizers that could be sold to farmers at comparatively cheap prices. Their waste-sieving machine, which had to be designed and built locally because such a large machine couldn’t be smuggled into Douma, proved effective.
“Due to the siege, farmers were left with no access to fertilizers, so the recycled organic waste offered them a practical and healthy alternative,” said Rim.
Developing these projects in a war-torn area was a challenge. The designer of the machine, a mechanical engineer, was later killed in a regime raid on the site, but the project, funded by the agency Expertise France, succeeded in transforming a hazardous dump site into something productive and beneficial.
The successful experiment has since been exported elsewhere in the region.
The siege has also obliged council members to work on alternative energy. “When you’re besieged in the winter and wood logs have become really expensive, then you will try to come up with solutions,” said council member Nazir Flitani.
For instance, due to restrictions on fossil fuels and the subsequent hikes in prices, many residents had started to distill plastic waste to produce liquid fuel – to use and sell – using primitive, unhealthy methods. This led to an outbreak of respiratory diseases, and in response the Douma Local Council instructed people how to assemble solar stoves and ovens instead.
The local council has also explored biomass solutions to generate energy from waste and other organic matter. They built a biomass pool at a local farm that produced enough energy to pump groundwater to the surface. When other farmers saw how successful the model had been they, too, turned to biomass-based irrigation systems.
Taha of the Douma Local Council believes their actions will have a lasting impact. “If the siege was lifted, people would not depend as much on renewable energy, but they have already learned not to take what they have for granted,” he said. “They have acquired the know-how on renewables.”
The First (and Last) Green Roundabouts in Eastern Aleppo
Most of Eastern Aleppo, held by rebels for four years until December 2016, is comprised of informal settlement neighborhoods, which have narrow streets, no green spaces and no proper planning. More than four years of regular bombings by the Assad regime have transformed the area into a scene of death and destruction.
In 2015, however, three Aleppo activists decided to bring their besieged city back to life by planting trees.
“We wanted to add an aesthetic element to this part of the city that had been neglected by the Syrian government,” said Rayan, one of the volunteers who now lives in France.
“It lacked trees and flowerbeds, and the roundabouts were filled with soil and poor vegetation,” he said. “The original idea was to plant an olive tree in front of every house that had lost a member under the bombardment and add a metal plate with the name of the victim carved on it. We hoped that people would love the idea, and [hoped] to create a planting movement in the city.”
However, the streets where most of these families live are very narrow and exposed to shelling, and the few local parks had been transformed into cemeteries as Aleppo’s graveyards filled up.
The activists had to change their plans as more people were killed. “The number of victims, 12,000, was much more than we could handle,” said Barry,* another team member. “So we decided to focus our efforts on two roundabouts.”
The group decided instead to plant hundreds of trees in two of Aleppo’s main roundabouts: one, at the southwestern city entrance, near Jisr al-Hajj, a bridge that separates the rebel-held areas from the regime-controlled neighborhoods, and another in al-Jandool, Aleppo’s northern point of access.
Saif, a third volunteer with the project, managed the work on the ground. He consulted with the last gardener in Eastern Aleppo on the types and number of trees to be planted. Olive trees were chosen; these native evergreens can be easily planted when they are two years old, producing olives sooner than a sapling. Cypresses were also selected to provide protection from the wind.
Baytna Syria, a Danish-funded Syrian civil society organization, covered all the costs of the campaign, including the purchase and transport of the trees and the workers’ wages. In February 2016, 400 olive trees and 100 cypress trees were planted.
“Everything is gray in Aleppo, but after this campaign one would suddenly encounter these two green spots in the middle of this gray sea,” said Barry, who now lives in Gaziantep, Turkey.
The workers managed to successfully implement the campaign despite the threat of being bombarded or targeted by regime snipers. The planting was slow, as workers had to stop and hide every time they spotted a military plane in the sky.
The project was well received by residents. Even opposition militiamen from different factions offered to help, but the organizers refused to jeopardize the “civilian nature” of the project.
Alas, this story has no happy ending: The Syrian regime recaptured al-Jandoul roundabout and heavily bombarded the Jisr al-Hajj area before capturing all of Eastern Aleppo in December 2016. Rayan and Barry believe most of their trees in Jisr al-Hajj have already been burned or damaged.
Organic Fertilizers in the Northeast
There has been less violence in the northeastern Jazirah plain than in many other parts of Syria, but farmers are having trouble maintaining their lands because they lack pesticides, chemical fertilizers and seeds.
The landlocked Kurdish-majority northeast, which is currently controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), has had most of its trading routes disrupted as a result of the ongoing campaign against ISIS and the closure of border crossings with Turkey.
Many farmers were forced to close their businesses due to the depreciation of the Syrian pound. A ton of chemical fertilizers, for example, rose to more than $600, an unaffordable price for an average farmer.
Hishiar Omar, the head of the Girke Lege Charitable Organization in Maabada, has watched as the conflict has taken an environmental toll.
“Before 2011, the municipality used to clean up cattle and sheep manure, although inefficiently,” he said. “But the new local authorities [the PYD] were not able to fulfill their responsibilities and, as a result, the manure started to accumulate in the streets, causing diseases such as leishmaniasis [a parasitic skin and liver disease caused by sandfly bites] to spread.”
The organization’s team studied their options.
“We gathered the manure from the streets and the farmers’ stables and started using it as fertilizer,” one volunteer, Kameran Ramadan, explained. “What was once harmful waste is now an added value for the agricultural land whose positive effects last for over five years.”
The main challenge was to convince the local population to revert to natural fertilizers. Farmers had become highly dependent on government-subsidized chemical fertilizers that were distributed for free in wheat-growing areas until the mid-1990s, when support was gradually decreased, before being withdrawn in 2014.
“They came to my stable and helped me get rid of the accumulated dung,” said one farmer, admitting his initial reservations. “I know that this can be used as fertilizer, but I am not sure it will be as effective as the chemical one we used to buy from the market.”
The team is currently waiting for the harvest season to demonstrate why organic fertilizers are preferable to chemical options. Ramadan said the plan is to expand the areas where the natural fertilizers are available over the next few years.
The Girke Lege Organization is determined to expand its project while launching more environmental initiatives. “People are moving toward economic gains at the expense of nature and health everywhere,” said Omar. “Nonetheless, we will keep on creating practical, environmentalist and healthy initiatives that generate work opportunities.”
*For security reasons, all names are pseudonyms in the Aleppo and Douma stories, with the exception of Ahmad Taha, Nazir Flitani and Barry.
The Douma video was shot by the Douma Local Council and edited by Sultan Jalaby; the Maabadeh video was shot by Ahmad al-Biro and edited by Sultan Jalaby. The Syrian Independent Media Group is comprised of six independent Arab media organizations working together to highlight untold stories from the war-torn country: AlJumhuria; Enab Baladi; Rozana Radio; Syria Deeply; Syrian Female Journalists Network; and Syria Untold. The project is supported by International Media Support.