Syrian Strife and the Environment

Seeking the roots of Syria’s civil war can lead in numerous directions, from failing economic policies to inflamed social tensions. Yet, early on, the idea of Syria as climate change’s first war gained traction, with human-induced climate change, heat waves and droughts, to many seen as the final straw, leading to war. Displacing millions and killing over 400,000, the war will someday grind to a close and some form of peace or stalemate be declared. The nation will be permanently etched by new scars and degraded environments. How nations recover from war is a broad and multidisciplinary subject. Rather than cast our net wide, the focus should be on the current shape of Syria’s agriculture and environment and how it, and its people, are directly impacted by war.

While war rages, clean-ups or broad identifications of environmental harms go unregistered. The Syrian landscape, from cities to fields, hide a multitude of threats, and many will directly impact the population of survivors. Dumped chemicals and spilled petroleum will poison the earth and water, the air in war zones is polluted by pulverized concrete and smoke, and wheat fields are turned into minefields. The latter gives us one of the first insights into the fusion of warfare and environmental harm.

As of 2018, approximately 1,906 people were killed or wounded by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Syria. Farmers are most likely to be impacted by landmine or UXO as their work takes them into and through the very areas sowed with area denial munitions. Within Syria, the largest casualty group can be found in Raqqa, comprising 46% of known landmine or UXO deaths and injuries, followed by 29% in the region of Aleppo. Most of the casualties come from farmers or others carrying out domestic labor. Whether blanketed by cluster munitions or mechanically laid mines, lands are rendered useless until they are effectively cleared. Nations like Bosnia, Angola, Cambodia and Colombia remained haunted by the specter of earth concealed explosives, a future now shared by the people of Syria. Minefields or areas of UXO require intensive demining in a process that can take decades, which in the case of already perilous agricultural lands, may result in soil quality degradation, infestation by weeds or pests, or require such expensive refurbishment that they are abandoned and lifeless. The decades-long worry of undiscovered landmines further degrades the social fabric of communities, while tainting any environmental recovery and denying traditional agricultural pursuits.

Landmines, however, are not the sole danger to the land and its users along the road to peace. Recent Syrian government forces shelling agricultural fields outside Aleppo denied farmers the ability to plant or harvest crops. The immediate harm to life and the environment by the shelling will be compounded by the presence of unexploded ordnance, which will result in harm to future generations of farmers.

Another byproduct of the government shelling and aerial attacks are fires, another weapon used on the people and landscape of Syria. Tens of thousands of acres of farmland have been burned throughout Syria just in the past year. Set by air-dropped munitions or artillery fired shells, fires have swept into Syrian agricultural lands, especially in the Al-Hasakeh region. Authorities believe that fires in the Al-Hasakeh region were intentionally set by non-governmental actors. An estimated 60% of the agricultural lands in the region,  encompassing 23 towns, were destroyed by fire as of 2019. And, Al-Hasakeh is the prime location for staple crops of wheat and barley in Syria, wrote Reliefweb.

In brief, while there has been a rise in agricultural production, many regions within the country still face fuel and transport shortages, lack of markets for produce, and the presence of continued fighting or unexploded ordnance, as the UN explained. Landmines, unexploded bombs, rockets or grenades, and intentional fire setting are just some of the many environmental problems bombarding Syria before even addressing anthropogenic climate change. Environmental mitigation and recovery will require concerted and unified efforts by domestic and international parties. The classic example of systemic post-war reconstruction, the Marshall Plan, stressed agricultural repair and reinvestment. It’s estimated that half of the American Marshall Plan aid was made up of agricultural assistance, or $4.4 billion in the program’s first two years.

Over the border in Iraq, post-ISIS environmental recovery was spearheaded in Ramadi, as local and international actors turned to clean up the environmental devastation left behind. Residue from chemical weapons, industrial spills, toxic compounds in the air, and tainted waterways were the environmental testimony of war in Ramadi. Similarly, during the First World War, European forests and fields were permanently changed by the conflict, from forests decimated by war-time logging to landscapes turned barren battlefields by artillery and unexploded munitions, and poisoned by lead and mercury contamination. So utter and complete was the environmental devastation, France declared 1200 sq. km uninhabitable, called “Zone Rouge.”

In The Environmental Footprint of War, Joseph Hupy captures a fundamental, if overlooked, aspect to war, writing, “Warfare, a powerful agent of landscape change … is often larger in magnitude and size than other forms of anthropogenic disturbance … because of its capability to render such widespread destruction over large areas in such short periods of time.” If Syria is the first climate change war, it also continues the anthropogenic tradition of violently reshaping the earth with untold ferocity and lingering harm. Like France’s “Zone Rouge” or the desolate and deadly K-5 minefield in Cambodia, comparable environmental hurdles will undoubtedly be found throughout Syria when the conflict eventually comes to an end, and only time will tell whether remediation will ever be addressed.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on March 3, 2020.


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