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The reverberating environmental effects of explosive weapon use in Syria

·        In 2017, there were at least 1,906 casualties reported from landmines and ERW.

·        Clearance of landmines and ERW could take approximately 50 years.

·        The destruction to civilian infrastructure across Syria amounts to over $75 billion.

·        50% of basic infrastructure in Syria is thought to be either destroyed or rendered non-operational.

·        Coalition bombing has damaged over 250 targets related to oil installations.

The heavy use of explosive weapons leaves a considerable environmental impact, particularly deployed over populated areas such as towns and cities. It is not just the weapons themselves that contaminate, but also the destruction and disruption they cause that can have unexpected and often-times devastating impact on both the environment and on environmental health. Such consequences can present a severe hindrance to post-conflict recovery.

Despite the levels of potential harm, the environmental impacts of conflict are often understudied, and can be ignored by those considering redevelopment issues, with often a greater focus placed on quick solutions than sustainable ones. Below, AOAV examines some of the key environmental concerns arising from the use of explosive weapons in Syria, and seeks to highlight areas of concern that those seeking to help rebuild Syria might consider.

UXO
In 2017, 1,906 casualties in Syria were recorded by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor from landmines and ERW, though the true figure is thought to be significantly higher. 47% of these were caused by improvised victim-activated devices or IEDs. The majority of those harmed were seen in Raqqa and Aleppo, with 880 (46%) and 550 (29%) landmine and ERW casualties recorded there respectively.[i] According to UNMAS, it is thought that men and boys are most at risk, due to cultural norms surrounding gender and employment.[ii] Boys, for instance, are more likely to engage in unsafe behaviour, such as trying to move ERW or get scrap metal from items. Farmers are also more likely to be amongst the victims, as they are forced to work on the land where the contamination exists – a hard truth born from economic necessity.[iii]

There is little data available on levels of UXO contamination across Syria. UNMAS rely on estimates based on the number of explosive incidents, recorded by UNOCHA, alongside civilian perceptions of the level of contamination on the ground, established through Multi-Sectoral Needs Assessments (MSNAs). UNMAS also uses casualty data and, with the help of teams on the ground, carries out basic surveys to gain a better idea of levels of contamination. It is clear from such work that the levels of UXO contamination in Syria are extensive, and that clearance could take decades; some estimates are that it could take 50 years.[iv]

This is the destroyed home of a Syrian refugee AOAV met in Turkey.

Matthew Williams, Head of the Programme and Coordination Unit at UNMAS Syria Response in Jordan told AOAV that there was, on average, one instance of explosive weapon use in Syria every ten minutes since January 2015[v] (and one attack could include several bombs – particularly in the case of cluster munitions). When applying a 10% failure rate for modern weapons,[vi] it is clear that a considerable amount of contamination must exist.

Currently, there is precious little in terms of UXO clearance taking place across Syria, despite efforts by civilians and local organisations. Where work is being carried out, such teams often have little in terms of training and lack the necessary equipment. Their task, too, is daunting: one issue consistently noted by clearance organisations was the fact that the debris and rubble that littered Syria contained many layers of explosive contamination.

This layered contamination requires the use of armoured vehicles to reach the explosives – and organisations in Syria frequently find themselves unable to access such equipment. The Rojova Mine Control Organisation (RMCO), an organisation committed to carrying out clearance in Northern Syria, for instance said that the lack of such armoured vehicles is one of the main barriers they face. Shortages such as these lead to the ad-hoc removal of rubble that has, in turn, resulted in a number of injuries amongst the civilian population.[vii]

The provision of clearance equipment has its own challenges. The Turkish government has placed strict restrictions on what can pass through its border to Syria, preventing the importing of much of the equipment needed for full surveys and clearance.[viii] There are also other barriers to clearance in terms of funding and training. At the RMCO, for instance, they often find themselves unable to pay the salaries of those carrying out the work.[ix]

More aspects of UXO are discussed in other sections throughout this paper and below.

Agriculture
The GDP from agricultural output in Syria contracted 41% between 2011 and 2015.[x] There have been significant shortages in equipment and difficulties in storing produce, as well as sustained damage to irrigation infrastructure that has severely curtailed production. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), by 2014 wheat production had halved in Syria when compared to mid-2000.[xi]

It is a decline that has been exacerbated by a number of things. Irrigation systems have been damaged by bombardments, and such destruction has been compounded by the displacement of skilled workers – who would have repaired the harm – leading to years of neglect. Indeed, one of the most cited problems to the future of agriculture in Syria is the continued difficulty in finding qualified workers.[xii]

Sometimes such irrigation destruction has been purposeful; in Raqqa, for instance, ISIS bombed the irrigation control centre before their surrender and withdrawal. Coalition airstrikes have also damaged irrigation infrastructure. Such damage often leads to increased water pumping costs that has, in turn, led to many small-scale farmers being unable to survive.[xiii] This harm has in many cases led to a loss of capital and debt.[xiv]

Farmers have been reported by UNMAS to be amongst the most common casualties from ERW in northern Syria, particularly in the north-west.[xv] This is, in large part, because of the nature of working the land and the economic need for such. Dr Omar Atik, at Shafak, for instance, told AOAV that many farmers work their land, even knowing it is contaminated.[xvi]

Another impact of the conflict has been about the type of produce grown. Efforts taken to redevelop the agricultural sector have tended to focus on cash crops – those that are less cost-, resource- and work-intensive, such as herbs. This has meant a move away from the staple commodities. While this is good in the short term for the farmer, it is not beneficial for the wider community.[xvii]

This is a damaged home of a Syrian refugee AOAV met in Turkey.

Infrastructure
By 2017, over 50% of the basic infrastructure in Syria was thought to be either destroyed or damaged. The Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) further estimated in a 2016 report that the destruction to civilian infrastructure across Syria amounted to some $75 billion. Such wreckage has not only had a severe impact on the economy but has also devastated the lives of countless of civilians.

As of March 2016, an estimated 20% of the total housing of Aleppo, Dar’a, Hama, Homs and Idlib, lay in ruins. About 34% of housing units were said to be partially damaged, with Aleppo having the largest number of partially destroyed housing units – though this did not include the extreme damage to Aleppo caused during the bombardment of the final months of 2016.[xviii] In Raqqa, 80% of the buildings have been reported either partially or completely destroyed.[xix] Damage to infrastructure has also caused disruption to industrial facilities (and production) and led to constant power outages.

Fuel shortages and conflict-driven constraints to the operation and maintenance of power stations have led to a sharp drop in supply. Power generation declined from 43,164 gigawatt-hours (GWh) in 2010 to 16,208 GWh in 2015 – a fall of 62.5%.[xx] Much of this was down to fuel shortages, as available generation capacity declined by about 30% in the same period. This decline in electricity supply has caused major disruptions, especially with regard to access to clean water. By 2013, much of Syria’s water supply system had become reliant on generators, and even then, only about 50% of capacity was able to be supplied. In the north, as much as 60% of the water systems there were said to be non-functional due to this lack of power.[xxi]

Across eight governorates – namely Aleppo, Raqqa, Daraa, Rif Dimashq, Deir Ezzor, Homs, Hama, and Idlib – one study found physical damage to 457 water supply and sanitation infrastructure assets. The report concluded that ‘nearly two-thirds of the water treatment plants, half of the pumping stations, a third of the water towers, a quarter of the sewage treatment plants, and a sixth of the wells have been destroyed or partially damaged across Syria.’ This survey did not include an assessment of damage to pipe networks.[xxii] But it is clear that, even though some of those networks were damaged prior to the war, the war has greatly exacerbated such harm and further prevented repairs.[xxiii]

In addition, damage to wastewater treatment plants from airstrikes around Aleppo and Damascus is estimated to have affected 3.4 million people in 2015. It is reported that, due to the proximity of water and waste-water pipes, alongside a predominantly rocky terrain which causes leaked wastewater to seep kilometres, clean water sources are often contaminated. This has, of course, furthered the spread of waterborne diseases with profound subsequent health consequences (for more, please see the section on health).

Overall, across Syria there has been a reported 50% reduction in access to safe water, due to infrastructural damage, a lack of maintenance and a loss of power supply. The number of people who use the water network as their primary supply is even lower, a drop from 95% prior to the conflict, to 13% today. In 2018, it was reported that many Syrians spend as much as 25% of their income on water – a price that can prevent families from acquiring other necessities.[xxiv]

Many of the refugees that AOAV spoke to, particularly those from Aleppo, had seen their homes severely damaged or destroyed. They spoke of those they knew who had remained behind in Syria. How many had moved into the surviving homes of relatives, friends or displaced strangers. How others, if their houses were not damaged, had opened their doors to the blighted – sharing their roofs with neighbours and friends.[xxv]

One Syrian architect spoke of how the poorest neighbourhoods in Aleppo had been the most bombed and how, as many professionals had fled from the middle class suburbs, those from the poorer areas had moved into the empty homes left behind.[xxvi] She voiced a concern about such a trend – that it could cause tensions when people begin to return. Many displaced families may not wish to vacate the homes they had been occupying, especially as they may not have a home to return to.

Another architect from Homs spoke of his concern that Syria has no experience of rebuilding after a disaster.[xxvii] In particular, he said, many civilians may be trying to rebuild their broken homes, leading to unsafe construction practices and unstable constructions. He also spoke of the need to involve local communities in reconstruction decision-making – a failure to do so could lead to rebuilds that were neither beneficial nor suitable for local communities, and doing so could hamper long-term community cohesion and a sense of belonging.[xxviii]

All the architects that AOAV spoke to, however, saw opportunities in the rebuilding process too – a chance to build better homes, particularly in poorer districts – and even a chance to build up cities where divisions could be healed, not exacerbated.

The damage to health and education infrastructure is discussed elsewhere is this report.

Pollution
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas and the destruction of civilian infrastructure causes a number of environmental concerns. The composition of the explosive weapons themselves means that such elements, including for example, heavy metals, fuels, lubricants, solvents and energetic materials such as RDX and TNT and propellants (such as perchlorate), can contaminate both soil and groundwater. Additionally, such metal contamination also makes the clearance of ERW all the harder.[xxix] Furthermore, the destruction of large numbers of oil refineries, textile, pharmaceutical and plastic factories, power stations and hospitals are all also likely to have released toxins and hazards into the environment. Of all, though, it is perhaps the extensive damage to buildings in general across Syria that may cause the greatest environmental consequences there and, in so doing, exacerbate other forms of environmental fallout.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Syria has caused the destruction of many urban areas. In doing so, civilians have been exposed to countless dangerous substances. Clouds of toxic dust, a mixture of pulverised cement, metals, Polychlorinated biphenyl, silica, asbestos, industrial or medical waste, explosive residues and other synthetic fibres, are thrown up by blast and linger over the cityscapes like a shroud. Into this mix comes the fact that the intense heat caused by explosive weapons can also generate changes in the chemical composition of such materials, making the dust even more toxic.

Some of the impacts of such materials have been looked at in detail, especially in places such as Lebanon and Gaza, places where many residents were exposed to the carcinogen asbestos following the destruction of infrastructure there. It is also clear that the toxic dust from the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 caused a wide variety of health issues among New Yorkers, particularly in terms of respiratory, neurological, and gastrological complaints. About 30% of those exposed to dust inhalation following the 9/11 attacks required medical treatment, with new patients even now presenting with related illnesses, almost two decades later. In total, some 43,000 people have been certified with a 9/11 related health condition, including almost 10,000 with a related cancer – and many more are likely to have been affected. This, it should be noted, is in a developed nation where the health care systems were not harmed by the attack – something that clearly Syria did not benefit from.

Syrian children walk past the rubble of buildings destroyed by explosive weapons.

First-responders are amongst the most vulnerable, and many of those exposed to the toxic dust have developed ‘chronic, disabling illnesses as a result of their horrific exposures’. Many school and college students are also amongst those most impacted, some even developing cancers in their 20s and 30s, along with other life-altering health conditions. There are additional concerns related to this type of exposure in Syria, including the lack of safety measures, prolonged exposure due to their inability to clear the waste effectively, and the lack of health infrastructure to address the needs of those impacted, to name just a few. The truth is that the extent of such consequences may only come to light in another decade.

Informal waste dumps were already a pre-conflict problem in Syria, and it is likely that the destruction brought by the war will exacerbate the use of these dumping sites and increase the likelihood of groundwater contamination accordingly.[xxx] The random burning of waste across Syria has also reportedly increased. The further health impacts from such rubble and waste are discussed under the health section.

ISIS’ improvised oil refineries
After ISIS gained control of territories along the Euphrates River, they began exploiting Syria’s oil supplies in order to finance their operations. It was certainly a cash cow for the terror group: almost 6,000 sites were recorded near Deir Ezzor in 2016.[xxxi] These refineries, for the most-part, were makeshift and reliant on out-dated processing techniques. Leaks and fires, toxic fumes and gases were commonplace in these refineries, an environmental harm exacerbated by Russian and US-led coalition bombings, as well as by ISIS’ own scorched-earth tactics when in retreat.

Coalition bombing has been estimated to have damaged over 250 ISIS targets related to oil installations, along with hundreds of fuel trucks. Russian airstrikes may have targeted fewer facilities, but they were said to have destroyed over 1,000 fuel tankers. Such bomb runs, beyond the immediate pollution the spill of oil must have caused, also forced ISIS to greater reliance on more hazardous and makeshift sites, with corresponding greater health and environmental risks.

The contamination from such rudimentary oil refineries, along with the bombing of such facilities, is likely to cause contamination to waterways near the sites, whilst the soot from burning oil along with spills can render the land barren and unworkable. Such impact on Syria’s agriculture has already seen reduced harvests.[xxxii]

Numerous health impacts from oil contaminants have also been documented amongst the local population, ranging from persistent coughs to chemical burns and the raised risk of tumours. AOAV spoke with Dr Kinda Alhourani and Dr Tarek Al Mousa from the Syrian Expatriates Medical Association (SEMA), who both highlighted the fact that cancer cases had been associated with children’s increased interaction with oil pollutants, as well seeing a general increase in the number of lung cancer diagnoses in those areas most impacted.[xxxiii]

Natural resources and habitats
Little research has been conducted into the non-anthropocentric environmental impacts of explosive violence, despite the toll such harm is likely to have, and the long-term harm consequences of such, on local communities. Animal populations, for instance, are likely to be impacted by UXO, water, waste, and oil contamination caused by explosive weapons. Other impacts to wildlife and livestock are also likely to occur as a result of the disruption and destruction caused by widespread bombing.

IDP camps can create their own environmental concerns. In Syria, many IDPs rely on collecting firewood for an energy source. In Idlib, such collection is reported to be having an impact on the landscape. In fact, between 2001 and 2017, Syria lost 18,600 hectares in tree cover, a 20% loss of cover since 2010. Of this, at least 14,000 hectares (75%), was lost in the years following the start of the conflict in Syria, especially around Idlib.

A particular concern is that of the coastal region, where mountainous areas are witnessing high levels of deforestation as a result of high numbers of displaced persons relying on firewood after fleeing the bombardment in Aleppo. The contamination of Syria’s rivers, reservoirs and lakes, as mentioned earlier, also threatens the bird and animal species that rely on them. Understandably, biodiversity in Syria is said to be ‘notably disrupted’.

Since the Syrian war began, the last bald ibis in the wild appears to have perished in Palmyra, while a number of other species are also in danger, including long-legged wading birds, sociable lapwings, the Arabian ostrich, and the Syrian brown bear.

Wider-environmental impacts
Displacement has had a severe environmental impact on refugee host countries. In Jordan, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, the influx of refugees has led to pronounced water scarcity and created tensions amongst host populations. Syrian refugees have also produced greater levels of human waste, which in turn risks contaminating the groundwater available. The health needs of refugees have also been associated with an 84% increase medical waste, and a 150% increase in pharmaceutical waste.[xxxiv]

There also appears to have been a marked rise in wildlife violations by Syrian refugees. In 2014, for instance, Jordan recorded ‘an unprecedented 1,483 court cases for wildlife violations’: 572 for illegal wood cutting, 75 for illegal grazing, 84 related to illegal hunting, 25 regarding forest fires, and 727 cases for other wildlife violations.[xxxv]

Waste has also been an issue related to refugees in Lebanon. Research published in 2014 by the Ministry of Environment indicated that municipal spending on waste disposal, particularly in Akkar and Bekaa, had increased by 40%, whilst 92% of untreated sewage was running directly into water sources, so great had the increased demand on land, electricity, and waste disposal, been. As a result, since 2011, waste water pollution has increased in Lebanon by some 33%.  And whilst, in both Lebanon and Jordan, such issues related to waste management pre-date the Syrian war, the influx of refugees has certainly exacerbated this issue.

Conclusion
Explosive violence, and its consequences, has had a severe and long-term impact on both the urban and non-urban environment, both within and outside Syria. In the years prior to the conflict, Syria’s environmental governance was notoriously poor, and has clearly deteriorated since. Such a failure has had profound effects. The harm to the environment is one of the leading causes of poor health and poverty in the region, and will continue to be so over coming years. Some impacts will not be fully understood for years, as has been seen with 9/11, but – for the present – the issue of explosive violence and environmental considerations must stand at the forefront of those humanitarian agencies’ agendas when it comes to redevelopment.

To read the full report, key findings, other sections, or another related articles, interviews and videos, please see here.

 

[i] According to interview with Jenny Reeves, Mine Action Consultant, Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 26th September 2018.

[ii] Interview with Heba Najjar, Mine Action Sub Cluster Coordinator at UNMAS, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 10th 2018.

[iii] Interview with Heba Najjar, Mine Action Sub Cluster Coordinator at UNMAS, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 10th 2018.

[iv] https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WP1548-Report.pdf

[v] Interview with Mr. Matthew Williams, UNMAS Syria Response, Head of Programme and Coordination Unit, and Gilles Delecourt, Head of the UNMAS Syria Response Programme, October 19th 2018.

[vi] Interview with Aiden Short, Urban Resilience Platform via Skype. September 26th 2018.

[vii] Interview with Heba Najjar, Mine Action Sub Cluster Coordinator at UNMAS, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 10th 2018.

[viii] Interview with Heba Najjar, Mine Action Sub Cluster Coordinator at UNMAS, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 10th 2018.

[ix] Interview with Mustafa, Vice President at RMCO Syria, Via Whatsapp, October 4th 2018.

[x] World Bank, 2017, ‘The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria’.

[xi] World Bank, April 2017, ‘MENA Economic Report: The Economics of Conflict Reconstruction in MENA’, (Middle East and North Africa Region).

[xii] A problem noted by all agricultural specialists interviewed by AOAV.

[xiii] Interview with Francesco Baldo, UNDP Syrian Early Recovery coordinator via Skype. October 16th 2018.

[xiv] Interview with Dr Omar Atik, Shafak, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 26th 2018.

[xv] Interview with Heba Najjar, Mine Action Sub Cluster Coordinator at UNMAS, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 10th 2018.

[xvi] Interview with Dr Omar Atik, Shafak, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 26th 2018.

[xvii] Interview with Francesco Baldo, UNDP Syrian Early Recovery coordinator via Skype. October 16th 2018.

[xviii] World Bank, 2017, ‘The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria’.

[xix] Interview with Mr. Matthew Williams, UNMAS Syria Response, Head of Programme and Coordination Unit, and Gilles Delecourt, Head of the UNMAS Syria Response Programme, October 19th 2018.

[xx] World Bank, 2017, ‘The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria’.

[xxi] Interview with Omar Sobeh, Hand in Hand for Syria, WASH cluster coordinator, in Gaziantep, Turkey, October 23rd 2018.

[xxii] World Bank, 2017, ‘The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria’.

[xxiii] Interview with Omar Sobeh, Hand in Hand for Syria, WASH cluster coordinator, in Gaziantep, Turkey, October 23rd 2018.

[xxiv] Interview with Omar Sobeh, Hand in Hand for Syria, WASH cluster coordinator, in Gaziantep, Turkey, October 23rd 2018.

[xxv] Interview with an architect from Homs, via Skype. October 8th 2018.

[xxvi] Interview with an architect from Aleppo, in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 26th 2018.

[xxvii] Interview with an architect from Homs, via Skype. October 8th 2018.

[xxviii] Interview with an architect from Homs, via Skype. October 8th 2018.

[xxix] This was a concern reported in Sri Lanka by the HALO Trust, where metal contamination prevented the use of metal detectors which would speed up clearance.

[xxx] Zwijnenburg, W. ‘ Amidst the debris…: A desktop study on the environmental and public health impact of Syria’s conflict’, PAX for Peace, October 2015.

[xxxi] Zwijnenburg, W. ‘Scorched earth and charred lives: Human health and environmental risks of civilian-operated makeshift oil refineries in Syria’, PAX for Peace, August 2016

[xxxii] Zwijnenburg, W. ‘Scorched earth and charred lives: Human health and environmental risks of civilian-operated makeshift oil refineries in Syria’, PAX for Peace, August 2016

[xxxiii] Interview with Dr Kinda Alhourani and Dr Tarek Al Mousa, Syrian Expatriate Medical Association, in Gaziantep, Turkey, October 22nd 2018.

[xxxiv] Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, ‘Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis 2016-2018’, 2015.

[xxxv] Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, ‘Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis 2016-2018’, 2015.