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A Syrian family sitting under the shade of an olive tree.  Displaced Syrians gather in a field near a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in the jihadist-held northern Idlib province on May 8, 2019. Dozens of families spent the night on thin mattresses or blankets laid out over rugs on the red earth. Photograph by Aaref Watad.

A Look in to the Future – What can be learnt from Syrian conflict and how to rebuild keeping environment in mind

Text: Hanne-Mari Tervonen
Photos: Wim Zwijnenburg, Shutterstock and unknown photographer

The conflict in Syria has been ongoing for nine consecutive years. The roots of the conflict lie deep in the worst drought the country suffered in decades and in the heavy political and environmental pressure the big cities faced due to internal migration from the countryside to the cities. 

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring and the rise of the insurgency in Syria, the environment has suffered greatly – not only in Syria, but also in the six neighbouring countries due to the toxic remnants of war, vast refugee camps set up for the needs of the millions of displaced people and mass migration. 

The environmental governance wasn’t strong pre-conflict. During the conflict it has effectively collapsed.

But what can be learnt from the last decade of war – and what does the future look like from the environmental perspective?

Environmental Damage can be monitored already during the conflict

According to Wim Zwijnenburg, a researcher for the Dutch NGO PAX, monitoring can already begin during the conflict. 

More free satellite imagery has become available through easy-to-use tools since 2014. Data is being put online from various sources and open source research is being undertaken to identify potential environmental hotspots in conflict areas. 

“With access to all this data, we’ve demonstrated that there’s an opportunity to collect information and to assess the environmental damage and impact on communities already during the conflict”, Zwijnenburg explains. 

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Satellite images show a huge oil spill at a crude oil reservoir at the Jafra oil refinery in Deir ez Zorth in eastern Syria. Image from Google Earth and ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-2.  

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A kilometer long oil spill is visible at the Al Tayyem oil refinery in Deir ez Zor after intense fighting around the refinery between the Russia-backed Syrian army and the so-called Islamic State. Image via Google Earth and ESa’s Copernicus Sentinel-2.  

The researcher underscores that if you already have the information, it can be used to create data sets which can be made available for the aid organizations – who in turn can use this information in their response work, for example in dealing with setting up safe locations for internally displaced persons and refugees. 

“Also, if you have the information for the local authorities, as soon as they have the chance, they can implement policies and practices to prevent or minimize the health risks born from conflict pollution or tackle environmental damage caused by the conflict”, Zwijnenburg explains.

The challenge is how to increase and improve data collection and how to share this information with the right organizations. 

Exhaustive and expensive environmental impact assessments after the conflict can often be too little too late. According to Zwijnenburg, these assessments can be made with a relatively low cost during the conflicts.

“A total picture can be difficult to get, but at least there would be far more information than before. This can help with the cost-effectiveness of the reconstruction work, because you can respond faster and in a more informed way. More information creates better decision-making. This is something we should learn from these kinds of conflicts”, Zwijnenburg confirms.


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An explosion after an apparent US-led coalition airstrike on Kobane, Syria, as seen from the Turkish side of the border, near Suruc district, 13 October 2014, Turkey, Syria. Photograph by Orlok /

During the Syrian conflict, both the US led coalition and the Russia-backed Syrian armed forces bombed several industrial sites, oil refineries and other targets that could have resulted in the release of hazardous substances.

According to Zwijnenburg, the state – especially the armed forces – should be more wary of targeting certain sites and complexes, as it could result in acute or long-term health risks. 

In addition to oil refineries, attacks on chemical plants or industrial factories in general, as well as the damage to water and sanitation systems can cause pollution of groundwater and soil.

There’s a lot of debate as to whether targeting the Syrian oil installations caused more good or bad. The targeting was justified by the destruction of ISIS, but at the same time it led to a massive increase in makeshift oil refineries. 

These self-made refineries can have detrimental consequences, not only to the environment but also to the health of the people in the long term.

The targeting of refineries can generate significant localized contamination, increased health risks to civilians and pollution of the environment.  The scale of harm depends on local environmental conditions, land use and population density. 

Teenagers work at one of the makeshift oil refinery sites, near the town of Umm Duwayi, north East Syria. Children and young boys often work at makeshift oil refinery sites to earn income for their families.  Photograph by Wim Zwijnenburg, November 25, 2018.

It’s very likely that the soil and groundwater are contaminated and the air polluted from persistent fires. 

“What do they bomb? What are the long-term impacts of that? What could be done to prevent this kind of thing? How widespread or localized is the damage that affects the health of the local people? These are questions that should be assessed more carefully, Zwijnenburg explains.

Location of camp settlements is vital

Camp settlements for internally displaced persons and refugees can also directly affect natural resources such as woodlands and water. Cutting down trees and collecting firewood can increase deforestation. Deforestation can lead to   landslides, soil erosion and flooding.

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An aerial view shows dozens of displaced Syrian families gathering in the olive grove near a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in the jihadist-held northern Idlib province on May 8, 2019. People only have the minimum supplies with them: thin mattresses, blankets and cooking equipment, water canisters and occasionally solar panels. Photograph by Aaref Watad.

Increased population pressure can cause groundwater depletion. Mapping out the existing natural resources of the potential camp settlement area would help in the prediction and planning of natural resources usage.

According to Zwijnenburg site planning is also crucial for the health and safety of people.  

“In 2018 there were 15 000–20 000 people in the Arisha IDP camps amidst abandoned oil refineries and toxic waste. Seasonal rains and flooding started early, and the whole camp was washed away late last year”, Zwijnenburg explains.

How to balance energy demand?

Energy – and especially sustainably produced energy – is a constant challenge in camp settlements and conflict areas.

In Syria, doctors who were struggling to work due to frequent power disruptions, decided to invest in solar energy panels in hospitals in Northern Syria. Also in Daara in the south, sustainable energy initiatives are starting to bear fruit.

In many cases, the electricity grid is not extended to refugee settlements or it’s too unreliable to invest in grid-connected solar systems. In such situations, stand-alone systems with storage can be used to provide power to the critical needs of displaced people, such as in the case of the Mam Rashan refugee camp in Northern Iraq.

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Solar panels being used at a refugee camp in northern Idlib province, 14 March 2018. Photograph by Question123/Shutterstock

There has been a notable change towards sustainable energy alternatives, in particular towards clean energy with solar power. This change was sparked by the struggle of displaced populations trying to find better solutions to energy, and increased awareness in humanitarian organisations, host states and local authorities on environmental issues. 

Some of these changes can be seen with open-source tools, such as the IKEA and German government funded solar farms near the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan.

Kick-starting agriculture could be done during the conflict

As Zwijnenburg noted, more information creates better decision-making, which is essential when planning and building for the future. 

A comprehensive study or evaluation regarding environmental impact assessments will help determine the threshold capacity of the environment. 

It is important to prioritise agricultural lands within the master plan. This could be achieved by the rehabilitation of these lands after the conflict ends. This means restricting and limiting construction, especially in the productive agriculture areas. This in turn will help to create a healthy and appropriate environment, self-sufficiency and job opportunities for the locals.

After a conflict, the population density tends to increase in certain areas. This can become an issue when the exiled population returns and decide to live in the city, and not go back to their towns. 


A man watering tomatoes, capsicum and eggplants in a greenhouse plantation in Dael, in the southern Syrian province of Daraa. The war has caused many problems for agriculture like high prices of fuel, seeds and pesticides.  Dael was under opposition control on June 23, 2018 and now the Syrian regime controls the area. Photograph by Alaa Alfakier, April 24, 2016. 

The conflict has hit the rural households hard in Syria. Vast areas of agricultural land have been destroyed and farmers are facing shortages of agricultural inputs and limited access to markets. Irrigation structures have been damaged, along with processing and storage facilities, farming equipment and buildings. 

FAO has estimated that the overall financial cost of the damage and loss in the agriculture sector in Syria over the 2011–2016 period is at least 16 billion USD, which is equivalent to just under one-third of Syria’s 2016 GDP.

Lost production cost was the highest in annual crops and livestock. The total loss in annual crop production was 4.7 billion USD over the course of the conflict. 

According to the households interviewed by FAO, the area cultivated for annual crops decreased by 30% on average, by 50% for irrigated land and 10% had stopped crop production entirely due to insecurity and the high price of inputs. 

The main constraint for the households that were still farming was poor access to production inputs – especially fertilizers – as well as issues related to irrigation, lack of fuel pump access and drought.

With perennial crops like olive trees, the production loss was estimated at about 1.5 billion USD. There was significant damage to tree plantations in Daraa, Rural Damascus, Aleppo and Ar-Raqqa.

When the Syrian smallholders were asked what they required to enhance or resume their agricultural production, they were unanimous: for annual crops, perennial crops and livestock, the uniform assumption is that agricultural production can be kick-started effectively, even under current conditions. 

In order to do this, the focus should be on providing inputs – and in particular fertilizer and seeds for crops, and feed and medicine for livestock. Equally important measures include providing credit, marketing and processing support as well as asset repair for the locals.

What would be the cost of the agricultural recovery? In 2017, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia gave three scenarios assessing the financial implications of the conflict. 

Under a “no change” scenario of the conflict continuing at its current pace, the assessment estimates that the cost over a three-year period would be in the order of 11 billion USD (at 2016 prices). 

Under a “partial return to peace” scenario, this amount increases to 14.9 billion USD, because of an assumed partial return of rural migrants from urban areas and abroad. Under a “transition to peace” scenario, the costs amount to USD 17.1 billion.

Urban Planning lessens the stress of big cities

Supporting the kick-start of agricultural production would attract locals to stay or to return to the rural areas or countryside. This in turn would lessen the stress for the expanding cities.

Also, to ease the pressure on growth areas and plan the urban spaces, a detailed study of the quantity, concept and distribution of the density within the urban space would help. Environmental assessments can lead the decision-making in urban planning. This can be achieved with considering the environment as part of the city political strategy agenda, not as a contradiction of the municipalities’ decision-making process.


A view of new and old Damascus from Mount Qasioun before the Syrian war November 22, 2007. Photograph by Rosen Ivanov Iliev /

Other post-conflict planning could include increasing the public green spaces and recycling the rubbles in order to use them in the reconstruction process since that will help in saving the costs, transportation and time.

The use of recycled building materials – that have resulted from destroyed buildings – will help in minimizing the damages to the environment by reproducing these building materials´

Measuring the ecological footprint gives a basic idea to evaluate how much land is needed to support the consumption needs for citizens of the city. This can be done by applying methods, which are based on an estimated calculation of land and water, that people require or use to meet their needs. The calculation is based on the sum of waste and resources flow.

In general, the scale of spatial planning is vital. Applying productive ecosystems on the fringe of urban areas or surrounding them and to areas that absorb and degrade the human waste and sewage, balance the distribution of public amenities and use of multipurpose spaces will ease the stress on the cities and environment.

“Governments and official organizations should invest on environmental reconstruction and post-conflict work, because it’s a tool for peace building”, Zwijnenburg says.

It's Essential to Include locals To Rebuilding and Rehabilitation

Zwijnenburg emphasizes that it is important to include the local people to the work of the NGOs, for example UN’s work – and to keep the environment on the agenda.

“Attention waves as soon as the direct conflict is over. The environmental issue tends to drop out of the radar, because it’s not so visible anymore. For local communities the publicity of these environmental issues is important. It’s their future at hand”, Zwijnenburg reminds.

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Displaced Syrian women and children gather around a garbage truck at a landfill, outside a camp in Kafr Lusin, near the border with Turkey in Idlib province in northwestern Syria on January 29, 2019. Around 50% of the three million people living in the surrounding jihadist-ruled bastion of Idlib are displaced people from other parts of the war-torn country. The absence of proper waste management resulted in expanding waste dumps that risk polluting the groundwater. Photograph by Aaref Watad

The locals might not be able to use their land anymore, if their water is polluted. It might be unsafe to return or they might be concerned of being exposed to bad air quality because of burning oil wells or makeshift oil refineries.

“All these have an impact on their future. And political groups can exploit this”, Zwijnenburg says.

“It’s necessary to deal with the health issues to get an understanding how conflicts impact on health due to environmental damage or pollution, and to engage with these communities and make them part of the post-conflict environmental assessments.”

The PAX researcher calls for cooperation and long-term thinking. He emphasizes that the change many times comes from the local groups on the ground.

FAO emphasizes similar approach with the agricultural recovery. According to the 2017 report the only estimation of recovery costs that allows governments and FAO to “build back better” is one that treats the affected population as a valued partner, and is based on their feedback.

“Big organizations like the World Bank tend to look at the economical reconstruction and the environment is less visible. They look at things that can be changed or developed in a short period of time”, Zwijnenburg explains.

In general, many international organizations and development organizations don’t necessarily aim for long-term investments, because they are more difficult to justify and measure.

“For example, you can plant 5000 trees and state We’ve planted 5000 trees. But it requires more than that. People need education on how to maintain the forest and how to use the forest. It requires long-term commitment”, Zwijnenburg says.

PAX is trying to direct more attention towards the environment, climate change and biodiversity.

“We’re trying to bring together organizations working on the environment, on human rights and on legal protection to setup a network of organizations to help to collect and share information and to do work on keeping the environmental conditions in Syria and neighbouring countries in the agenda.”

A young boy on his bike poses at a pool of oil tar, remnants from a makeshift oil refinery site near the town of Umm Duwayi, November 25, 2018. Photograph by Wim Zwijnenburg.