Environmental costs of the Syrian Civil War

Photo by Mil.ru, CC-BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54615666

The devastating civil war in Syria entered its tenth year. A decade of war has caused one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world of an estimated death toll of 384,000-593,100 people as of December 2020. Besides, the displacement of approximately 12.7 million people, with nearly 6.1 million displaced internally struggling to survive.

The ongoing long war has been both economically and environmentally destructive. The toxicity of weapons used from chemical weapons to bombs and missiles has left its toll on the environment, imposing long term negative effects on the Syrian economy. The toll of war has not only disrupted the economic organization but also ended thousands of lives and destroyed the main factors of production. The war has severely diminished economic productivity as well as the incentive to manufacture and produce goods and services. The high usage of explosive weapons for a decade left a significant environmental impact, especially in over-populated areas.  

Environmental Conditions Prior to the War

The environmental conditions before the war was already disastrous. As Syria suffered from a high level of air pollution, mining pollution, water mismanagement, and waste mismanagement. All these elements resulted in high economic costs and contributed to the conflict. Nevertheless, the effect of the ongoing war will be much worse on the environment, the citizens, and the economy. The level of air pollution decreased during the war; however, it is still above the allowed average. According to the world health organization (WHO), Syria’s air quality is considered unsafe. As of 2019, air pollution in Syria ranked 18th out of 92 countries (one being the worst). This is due to the use of biological and chemical weapons. In addition to the emissions generated from the vehicles and equipment used for military operations. 

Resources Depletion, Soil and Water Contamination

Resource depletion is another environmental impact of the war in Syria. With the country facing depreciation of both renewable and non-renewable resources. The war has also generated vast quantities of hazardous materials. The use of weapons alone generated great varieties and tremendous quantities of these wastes along with production, maintenance, and storage.

The land in Syria is extremely affected by the constant bombing of missiles and other sorts of ammunition. The constant military operations have resulted in soil contamination of hazardous and toxic deposits. Both the surface and underground water contains contamination from these hazardous deposits. Long-term water pollution is also expected as a result of chemical and biological weapons. These elements impose not only health risks for citizens and associated ecosystems but also economic risks. 

Food Insecurity 

The war has created food insecurity, resulting in 9.3 million Syrian sufferings in 2019. This food insecurity is due to high food prices and the lack of job opportunities. Regardless of the favorable cereal production in 2020, lack of agricultural infrastructure is still a constrain for production. As the Syrian economy reliant on the integrated use of natural resources. The agriculture sector has lost $16 billion in terms of production, damage, and destroyed infrastructure and assets. The estimated cost of recovery for this sector accounts for $11-$17 billion. Between 2011 and 2015, the GDP from agricultural products has declined by 41%. The damage in irrigation systems and shortage of inputs such as fertilizers, fuel, and seeds has caused a significant loss for the sector. 

Lost Agricultural cost 

It is important to note that the rural population in Syria relied on agriculture activities by 46.5%. The percentage of the male population working in agriculture represented 23% and 22% for females. From 2011 to 2016, the total production of olive oil decreased by 60%, with a drop in the production of livestock by the same amount. The sum of the cultivated land in Syria represented 28%, with 21% of it irrigated. As a result of the war, the cultivated summer crops and vegetable land decreased by 36%, with a 13% decrease in winter crops and vegetable land. The estimated costs of damaged crops, materials, and fish are around $3 billion annually, with the loss of agriculture, forestry, and health estimated at $10 billion. This significant impact on the agriculture sector particularly for rural areas will result in a significant economic gap between rural and urban for future development.

Food and agriculture organizations (FAO) stated that the production of wheat had halved in Syria in 2014 compared to mid-2000. As the war continues, adding to years of neglect and decline in qualified workers. In addition to the use of explosive weapons that contains elements of heavy metals, fuel, solvents, and energetic materials are more likely to be contaminated in both groundwater and soil. These elements are more likely to cause several environmental concerns for the future of the agriculture sector in Syria, affecting both the economy that for years relied on agriculture production and exacerbate other forms of environment fallouts.

Environmental, Economic and Health Costs 

Job opportunities in Syria are currently quite limited, with a job destruction rate of 538,000 per year and an employment pool of 482,000 yearly. This resulted in 3 out of 4 Syrians of working age not contributing by any economic value. Further, 70% of the population used to work in livestock and agriculture activities in the north of Syria. However, due to the severe damage in the agricultural infrastructure as well as other elements mentioned above. This level of destruction for the agriculture sector pushed people into poverty and forced to shift their cultivation into fewer resources intensive crops. 

The economic burden of premature deaths and diseases related to air pollution in Syria represents a cost of 0.6 – 1.42% on the GDP. In 2010, the annual death toll related to air pollution accounted for 12,184 people. Air pollution is a risk factor driving death and disability by 16.5% between 2007-2017. There is also an increase in the number of injuries due to the high pollution level (taking into consideration all kinds of pollution, fumes, and toxic and oxidizing materials) that stimulate the collapse of the health system. The absence of early detection and the necessary treatment also plays a role in accelerating the death rate. This claim is confirmed by the Syrian Ministry of Health, through the numbers of sick deaths during the year 2015, in which malignant tumors ranked first on the list representing 50.92% of the total disease deaths.

The power plants have been damaged as a result of the nearby looting, dismantling of the facility’s metal equipment, and the nearby fighting. Moreover, a shortage of natural gas, diesel, and heavy fuel oil prevented the facilities from operating at full capacity, which helps to explain the reduction in the level of emissions for the last ten years. The disruption of the power supplies encourages citizens to use diesel generators that contribute to air pollution as the case in Iraq during the war. Moving into a ten years’ war, the widespread explosive remnants contamination along with a large volume of contaminated scrap metal and chemical weapons left land and groundwater with a high level of pollution.

The internal migration of Syrians during the conflict resulted in high pressure on urban services  This high level of migration has created a high demand for housing, electricity, fuel supply, transportation, and potable water and others. a large number of internal refugees have increased in city suburbs with the absence of sustainable measures. This increased the pressure on water supply with drinking water available only for less than four hours a day and electricity available for three hours a day. Lack of access to water supply and sanitation is another problem as inadequate sanitization, insufficient water for drinking and hygiene imposes high costs on the society in the form of waterborne illnesses, and the associated mortality.

The oil spills from the damaged refineries, wells, trucks, pipelines, and tanks from ISIS operations will not only harm the soil immediately but also pollute the groundwater and surface water leading to a high risk of polluted drinking water and agricultural land. This reates high exposure to chemicals found in crude oil affecting people and livestock. The magnitude of the health effects wil also depend on the intesnity and the duration of the exposure. Health issues can include kidney problems, liver problems, cancer and respiratory disease.

As happened during the Iraq war as the power stations were targeted by all parties in the conflict. Syria has a similar situation. What happened in the Iraq war is the same as Syria as oil contamination had linked to birth defects, cancer, and slow mental development for children. The pollution and fallout from the oil fires destroyed large areas of cultivated and grazing land and has killed livestock. This directly affected livestock breeder and farmers, who lost access to their sources of income.

Solid waste production by population has reached 850 tons per day which is double than the previous amount. Waste management such as Uncollected municipal and household waste attracts rodents and flies and other insects. These may carry infectious diseases that put children and individual trash pickers at risk. The conflict in Syria has resulted in: loss of livelihood; loss of daily activity, access to land and employment opportunities that provide for daily life and needs, resulting in extreme poverty; food insecurity due to loss of land and resources for livelihood; lack of shelter; a plastic sheet, the shade of a tree or a ruined home; lack of safe water and sanitation; lack of essential health and other social services, such as education for children; lack of communication, leading to isolation with these factors affecting young children the most.

Besides, the use of biomass fuel for heating and cooking activities increases indoor pollution levels and possess a threat to women and children. Research shows evidence that the increased use of biomass fuels lead to negative health effects and increased pollutotion both indoor and outdoor. It also increases the numbers of premature deaths, respiratory disorders, chronic bronchitis and even cancer.

All these factors will influence the future ability to recover to both the economy and the environment. Therefore, an environmentally sustainable solution once the conflict comes to an end is necessary. Rethinking industrial priorities and switching to renewable energy will be a necessary step. In addition to the application of strict water and land management regulations which could help to rebuild a greener economy. Even though traditional reconstruction operations have been a massive build-up of heavy industry activities to kick-start and boost the economy, this often causes rapid depletion of natural resources and severe environmental damage that Syria cannot afford.

Roba Gafaar is a an economic researcher specialized in financial institutions with the current interest in conflict and the environment”  She is currently living in Germany where she is doing her master.