Water Doesn’t Flow Nonstop To The Öncüpinar Refugee Camp​

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment Öcupinar Öncüpinar

Water doesn’t flow nonstop
to the Öncüpinar refugee camp

Text: Nina Jaatinen
Photos: Vanessa Riki

Öncüpinar is not a stereotypical refugee camp. When you first step inside the area, there is no mud, no dirt, no noise and no chaos. Instead you get the feeling of being inside a tiny little village, where everything is in order: white container houses, nurseries, schools, office buildings all in row with clean, straight stone-coated alleys running in between.

On one white container-home, there is vine growing near the ceiling and at the front of the container. It has been laundry day, as there are clean clothes hanging under the window. Satellite dishes on the rooftop, a sofa where you can sit and have a chat with the neighbors, kids bicycles and prams outside the containers tell that life is going on. Not as usual, but at least as good as it can.

Öncüpinar refugee camp is situated in Kilis, Turkey, just next to the Syrian border. If you go deep into the camp, you can see the Syrian flag flying in the wind on the other side of the wall, reminding the camp residents of their old homeland. So near, yet so far.

Lack of Water

After the Syrian war escalated in 2011, around 3.5 million Syrians have fled to Turkey. In the province of Kilis, it’s hard not to notice the change. In Kilis, the number of Syrian refugees outnumber the total of the local people in the host community (130 000 / 131 000 as of 2018). This has created tremendous challenges for the Kilis Municipality in many ways, with one of the challenges being the lack of clean water.

The area around Kilis is very arid and dry. The increasing number of refugees has led to an ever-increasing need for water. Most of the city’s drinking water comes from a dam, but due to climate change there was less rainfall than average in 2018, so the amount of water was not nearly enough to sustain the increase in population. The main problem continues to be the leaking water distribution system, which results in a 40% loss of drinkable water.

As a result, Kilis has a huge potable water problem and this is has had a direct impact on the Öncüpinar refugee camp. Originally the camp did have it’s own wells to provide water, but they eventually dried up. Now the water comes from the Kilis municipality dam. In November 2018, there was an attempt to find more water from the camp enclosure by drilling eight wells. By the spring of 2019, they succeeded in drilling new wells and are now able to extract 170 tons of extra water per day.

Due to the water shortage, a water use limit has been introduced into the camp.

“We are providing the water to the camp residents every second day, because it is an agreement with the local municipality”, says the camp manager Murat Cakmak.

The day the water flows to the camp, the residents can get it from two hours per day. As an exception, the water flows to the schools and social spaces in the camp every day, so that the school children and people using public spaces can wash their hands and flush the toilets.

“The teachers give kids hygiene education at the school”, tells the manager.

Mr Cakmak explains that they have learned a lot about issues concerning water, due to the Kilis city water problem. He further explains that one way to try to save water is to teach people how to use it in best possible way.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

The camp manager Murat Cakmak behind his desk.

Öncüpinar Refugee Camp

In November 2018 there were 3099 containers in Öncüpinar and 9855 people living in the camp, 60% of them being children living in one container.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Öncupinar camp was opened in 2012 by AFAD and handed over to MDGMM (Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management) in April 2018. The majority of the finance that maintains the camp comes from MDGMM.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Rainwater collection

The camp area is covered with tiles and the rainwater is collected and drained away.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment


There are approximately four people living in one container. There is a living room, toilet, shower, kitchen and air conditioner in every container. Electricity is provided 24 hours a day. The monthly cost of electricity for the whole camp is approximately 200 000 TRY per month in the summer and 1 000 000 TRY in the winter.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment Öcupinar Öncüpinar

Schools and Public Spaces

There are five schools in the camp: preliminary, secondary and a high school. There are several public spaces, a mosque and a clinic.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Families get taught about hygiene and energy saving methods in mosques, and children get taught about this in the schools.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment


During the days when the water flows into the camp, approximately 600 tons of water is used. Water is delivered to the containers by the water distribution network twice daily, for two hours. Each container has its own small water storage unit to provide water when needed. Each container is connected to the water and wastewater network in the camp.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Drinkable water is stored in four big water tanks inside a roofed storage hall. Each tank has a capacity of 2400 cubic meters. The water is treated with chlorine before being distributed to the camp’s water network.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

The camp’s management and maintenance team have learned a lot about the importance of water. The team are considering all the ways of saving water as well as different technical water saving options. The camp management, the Kilis municipality and the provincial authority all cooperate well with each other. In addition, a special committee has been set up to study and find different solutions for the lack of water.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment Öcupinar Öncüpinar


There are five laundries in the camp to wash clothes. The camp management organizes washing times so that every family in the camp has the opportunity to wash their clothes regularly. Disabled people have the right to wash their clothes more often.

At one laundry there are two elderly women: Khadija Asolo, 70, and Majeda Ibrahim, 48. “We are trying to come here 

once a week”, the women say.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Center for disabled

Name of the special education teacher: Iman Gostany Education center for the disabled, which provides special education. There are also children with Down syndrome and autism. The children get transportation to the school and back to the camp.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

There are two shifts at the school: one is only for the children with autism, and the other for the children with other kinds of disability.

The age of the children varies between 7 and 17. The groups are divided between the younger and older children. They also have different activities according to their age.

The teacher speaks Arabic, they learn reading, writing, singing, drawing amongst other subjects they learn.

“Sometimes we send them to normal schools to integrate them”, says the special education teacher, Iman Gostany. She explains that they try to collaborate with mainstream school teachers so some of the children could maybe spend the rest of their school time in a mainstream school.

-Outside of the camps there are no special children’s centers.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment


The camp has its own wastewater treatment plant. The treatment process starts with screening that separates the solids from the wastewater. Then a coagulant is added to the water and directed to the underground preliminary settling tank where the solids sink to the bottom of the tank. The sludge is then removed and taken to disposal.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

After this phase, the water goes through a biological aeration process in several aeration tanks, where the bacteria break down and consume the nutrients in the wastewater. There are altogether twenty tanks, each of them holding 600 tons of wastewater and several pumps providing them air.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

The solids and excess sludge from the wastewater treatment process are removed and dried with a drier and taken by sludge vehicles to the Kilis municipality for disposal. After being cleaned, the effluent of the treated wastewater goes through a canal to a valley on the Syrian side of the border where it is used for agricultural purposes. There are tests done every second week in the wastewater treatment plant to ensure the quality of the treated water.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment


crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Waste is collected every day at the camp. There are waste containers for household waste. The camp has its own waste collection vehicle that takes the waste to the waste transfer station for the Kilisi Municipality. There is no bio-waste separation within the camp.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment Öcupinar Öncüpinar

Life goes on in the Öncüpinar camp

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

The War In Syria Batters The Environments Of Neighboring Countries​

Syrian refugees in the unofficial settlement in Ghazed, Lebanon November 2017

The war in Syria batters
the environments of neighboring countries

Text is summary of three different articles published in Finnish magazines during 2018, written by journalist Aija Kuparinen and summarized and translated by journalist Alma Onali.
Photos: Vanessa Riki

The rapid population growth in Jordan and Lebanon that has followed the Syrian crisis has driven these smaller countries to the brink of a full-blown environmental crisis. However, governments and NGO’s are seeking solutions, some of which have already been successfully implemented.

The war in Syria has caused the biggest refugee crisis in the world. During the eight years of conflict, almost 12 million people have fled from their homes, 6 million of which are internally displaced and the rest have gone across the border.

One million refugees have sought asylum in Europe. The figure is relatively small, since the majority of the Syrian refugees have ended up in the neighbouring countries Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon alone has received one million of the total. The same goes for Jordan, where the official number of Syrian refugees is 660 000, but various organizations operating in the country estimate the number to be closer to a million. Europe has closed its borders and Middle Eastern countries are trying to cope by themselves with the massive amount of people in need of shelter.

In addition to the humanitarian costs of the crisis, the environment is a major victim of the war in Syria. Lebanon and Jordan were already struggling before the conflict started. Now the receiving communities have to take care of millions of new residents with resources and infrastructure that were not sufficient enough to begin with. Meeting this growing need has proven to be an almost impossible and a very expensive task. The international community has taken part in sharing the costs, but it is not enough. In just a few years, the rapid population growth has driven Jordan and Lebanon to the edge of an environmental crisis.

Dry Jordan

Jordan is a small country, approximately the size of Austria or Portugal, consisting mostly of a desert climate and environment. Due to its geographical location, the country suffers from acute water scarcity and a lack of natural resources. Jordan used to pump water from the Syrian side, but that option was lost after the war broke out. In addition, the 660 000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan are straining local resources significantly more than before.

And it is not only Syrian refugees. There are also people from Palestine, Iraq and Yemen who have sought a safe haven in the country. According to the official estimate, there are 3 million foreigners living in Jordan, in addition to the 6.5 million Jordanians.

Water, or rather the lack of it, is the hottest topic in Jordan. Mohamad Afana from the Ministry of Environment of Jordan says that the country is pumping groundwaters twice as fast as it renews. He estimates there is enough groundwater for only ten more years. In just five years the water shortage will start to take a heavy toll on the country.

“The Syrian crisis has pushed us to the point where Jordan has become the water-poorest country on earth. The situation is impossible”, Afana says.

Jordan has to solve wastewater management issues as well. Some 75 percent of wastewater is being managed, but the biggest concern lies in the wastewaters produced by industry. Around 60 percent of it is generated in regions that do not have water treatment plants.

“We estimated that 2500 cubic meters of industrial wastewater end up in Zarqa river each day. It’s a huge amount”, Afana says.

One of the biggest environmental concerns in Jordan is the fate of the Dead Sea. The drying up of the most important water supply in the region has already been a concern for decades. River Jordan, which flows to the Dead Sea, has been narrowed down to a mere creek due to extensive water usage. The surface of the Dead Sea sinks by one meter a year and Afana says it will be completely drained by 2025, unless something is done about it.

Different plans, such as a channel from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea were already proposed over ten years ago, but the plans have yet to be executed.

A view over Zataari refugee camp in Jordan. November 2017

Rivers of oil filled the landscape in North East Syria

Afana says that many organizations including the UN Development Programme UNDP, have tried to measure the environmental effects of the conflict, but no one has a clear picture of the overall situation.
Numbers trickle in from here and there. For example, it has been estimated that there is 30 percent more solid waste produced every year in Jordan after the start of the crisis. Since there is no efficient waste management system in the country, most of it ends up in landfills.

However, there is some good news ahead, Afana says.

“Jordan will invest in turning waste to energy in the future. It will diminish the amount of waste by 80 percent.”
Afana says the Syrian crisis costs Jordan some 2.6 billion dollars a year. A little over third of the amount is covered by international aid. Several organizations aim to work together with the state of Jordan to solve issues related to the war.
“Up until now, only a few of the donors have turned their attention to the environmental impact of the crisis”, Afana says.
“Before the war, Syria was a great country when it came to industry and agriculture. In that sense, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a lot of Syrians here. But when it comes to the environment, there’s nothing good about it. And no one knows how big the environmental effects will finally be.”

Polluted Lebanon

Lebanon is a small country on the Mediterranean coast, sandwiched between Syria and Israel. Lebanon was already suffering from a lack of resources before the war in Syria began. 20 years of civil war and other political crises have resulted in weak resource management systems. Now the situation with waste, water and electricity management is even worse, says coordinator Suzy Hoayek from the Ministry of Energy and Water in Lebanon.

“We’re not able to utilize sufficiently the water supplies that we have. We’ve come to the point where a lot of groundwater has been spent and it’s not renewing quickly enough”, Hoayek says.

“And now there’s a million more using the resources. The situation is not sustainable.”

Another big problem is water pollution. Only 60 percent of Lebanon is connected to a wastewater network. A big part of the network is not connected to treatment plants and wastewaters run straight into the sea and rivers. There are a few wastewater treatment plants in the country, but Hoayek says their operations are flawed.

When it comes to air pollution, the culprits can be found in both the traffic and the eight power plants that run with diesel and oil to produce electricity. Hoyaek says they are old and dangerous to the environment and they don’t provide sufficient amounts of energy. Lebanese are forced to compensate for the electricity shortage with private generators.

“There’s a lot of these generators and they cause a lot of health problems. To all of this you add Syrians, who compete with Lebanese for apartments, jobs and also water and electricity. Consumption levels are a million times higher. It’s like living in a massive landfill.”

Hoyaek says that in 2010, the ministry started to plan strategies to mitigate environmental problems, but the Syrian crisis has slowed the process down. There was never enough money for the projects anyhow, and now there’s even less.

“The state of Lebanon has counted that by the end of 2017 it has spent approximately 18 billion dollars to compensate for the effects of the crisis. The aid we receive is not enough to cover the costs.”

“Quite the contrary, international organization cut their aid year-on-year.”

A landfill right next to a refugee camp in Ghazeh, Lebanon.

Life in Landfills

The scale of the crisis is evident in the Beqaa valley, close to the Syrian border in the small town of Ghazez. Before the war in Syria broke out, there were 6500 residents in the town. According to mayor Mohamad Hussein al Majzoub, there are now 33000 to 35000 residents in Ghazez.

Population growth has caused an acute resource crisis and problems to waste management.

Before the crisis, the waste production in the town was approximately 800 kilos per day. Now the figure is 33000 kilos. The city was forced to borrow money and rely on help from organizations to tackle the environmental crisis.

“Our town is not able to serve this amount of people.”

Half of the Syrians in Ghazez live in informal settlements at the edge of the town, next to a new landfill, recently built by the UN Development Programme UNDP. If left unmanaged, the wastewaters from the camps will pollute the soil and groundwaters.

“We used to have dead carcasses of animals all around the place, rats running around and wastewater flooding the streets. People were burning garbage under bare skies and the smoke was harming the residents”, UNDP Project Coordinator Mahmud Taleb says.

“Thanks to the new landfill, we’re now able to take most of the smells and fluids away. We also built a monitoring system, so we can oversee that the waste is transported to the landfill accordingly. We also organized a broad education campaign so that residents could minimize their waste production.”

However, Taleb says the next problem is just around the corner. As the current landfill is filled, a new one has to be built. The location should’ve already been decided months ago, but that has not happened.

Al Majzoub says that the United States Agency for International Development USAID is planning to build a water storage and power plant in the region. United Nations Development Programme UNDP is trying to tackle the electricity shortage by installing solar powered street lights in Ghazez. When it comes to waste management and building WASH-structures (water, sanitation, hygiene) in refugee camps in Lebanon, the situation is difficult.

“The state of Lebanon has forbidden the building of permanent infrastructure regarding waste management and water treatment. The reason is the fear that refugees would want to stay here permanently”, Taleb says.

Successful pilots

The crisis that has followed the rapid population growth has forced these countries to come up with solutions. The population in Rouisset el Ballout on Mount Lebanon, north-east from Beirut, has grown by ten percent. Last year, they built a waste sorting centre in their municipality with aid from the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR. This is the very first and only one in the region and it will also  to be utilized by 70 other municipalities in the region.

“Before, all the waste from our municipality – and the others as well – ended up in the environment, polluting the groundwaters”, the mayor of Rouisset el Ballout Fadi Zeidan says.

“The state of Lebanon has no means of controling where the waste is carried and most of it ends up in nature. This project is a successful pilot that should serve as a good example for others.”

The UNHCR water and energy expert Renata Raad says the problem is not in the lack of technical skills, for there is plenty of that in Lebanon. The problem lies in funding and the lack of governance skills.

“I firmly believe that the solution lies in strengthening the capacity and know-how in our government. We have received help, but if there’s no more aid from the international community, our country will break under this burden”, Raad says.

Lebanon uses groundwaters for drinking water, but there are major issues in the water quality. Wastewaters were already a huge problem in the country before the Syrian war. Raad says that only three percent of wastewaters in the country are treated properly. There have been some attempts to fix the situation, but according to Raad, they have been insignificant in relation to the scale of the problem.

“River Beirut already became a wastewater river ages ago. The good part of all of this all is that the Syrian crisis is slowly waking us up to this situation and that it can’t go on like this”, Raad says.

“The sorting center in Rouisset El Ballout is a great example of how remarkable improvements can be achieved with relatively small costs.”

Climate Change And Migration – What Do We Know?​

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Climate change and migration
– what do we know?

Text: Elina Venesmäki & Veera Vehkasalo

Photos: Vanessa Riki
It has been predicted that climate change will affect everything from the weather to livelihoods across the globe. It has already had an impact on people’s movement as well – but it is hard to estimate exactly how much of an impact it will have in the future.

Today, more people are on the move than ever before. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) there are now 258 million international migrants. This is 3.3 percent of the world’s population.
In the future, this figure is expected to rise for a number of reasons – including population growth, increasing connectivity, trade, rising inequality, demographic imbalances and, the theme we concentrate on here, climate change.

But nobody knows how exactly how much of an increase climate change will have on migration flows.

Estimates are hard to make

Last year, the World Bank group estimated that the accelerating impact of climate change in three densely populated regions of the world could mean that over 140 million people will move within their countries’ borders by 2050.
These regions – Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America – together contain around 55 percent of the developing world’s population. And this is just an estimate for these areas and for internal migration.
But in discussions about people moving for environmental reasons, we often hear figures like 200 million, or even or up to 1 billion,. However, these are more guesstimates rather than precise projections.
“I tend not to use those figures. It is understandable people want to quantify things, but it’s almost impossible to pin a figure on this”, says Alex Randall, an expert on climate change and migration, and project manager for the Climate Change and Migration Coalition.
He uses drought as an example: when it impacts farming, profitability declines and people might be out of work in that sector. These people will have to find new jobs and if there aren’t any in the vicinity, they will migrate to find them elsewhere.
But even then, they tend not to go further than they really need to – usually to the closest city, or at most, they go for seasonal work abroad.

This means a lot of the current climate related migration is movement from rural to urban areas. Or if local economies are doing badly in cities as well, seasonal workers cross borders to work elsewhere for short periods at a time.

Zataari refugee camp in Jordan hosts approximately 80 000 Syrian refugees.

“You can say climate change is a force behind this migration. But if you ask people they won’t say they moved because of climate change, but because they couldn’t get employed anymore”, Randall says.

Zataari refugee camp in Jordan hosts approximately 80 000 Syrian refugees.

There are always many reasons to move

An important point here is that local job prospects or factors such as social security systems play a big part in what people do.

Typically, only the poor will be forced to migrate when the environment changes, whereas the wealthy can more often choose to do so.
But the poorest and most vulnerable people also have the most difficulties leaving their homes, even when they would need to, suggests Anitta Kynsilehto, Senior Researcher from Tampere University.
“More well-being usually means more movement”, she says.
People move for different reasons – and these reasons can differ between countries, regions, villages, neighbourhoods, households and individuals. Environmental, political, economic and social factors all have a role.
“It is often stated that climate change causes migration movements, but it’s challenging to define how, if in any way, migration movements caused by climate change differ from those caused by other factors”, says Saija Niemi, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Helsinki.


She also points out that things like the lack of opportunities for education or lack of connections to family members who have migrated earlier can influence a person’s decision to leave.
All of these decisions have multiple influencing factors, and that is one of the challenges in making estimates of the numbers of environmental or climate migrants.
“Migration is driven by a complex web of forces, so it’s very difficult to say X number of people will move by year Y”, says Alex Randall.

“It’s a very complicated picture, but climate change is a huge part of it, and will be an even bigger part in the future.”

Internal migration is most common

So, people already move because of climate change and will probably do more so in the future. But news of migration and refugee movements can give us the wrong impression of the phenomena by focusing on very specific kinds of migrants, usually international refugees.

However, presently, people mainly move within their home countries. The figure mentioned earlier – 258 million migrants or 3.3 percent of the world population – does not take into account people who move within borders.

The most recent estimates suggest that there are now over 760 million internal migrants globally.

And when it comes to displacement, meaning moving against ones will, war is also not the main reason people are forced to leave their homes. Disasters are.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a striking 26.4 million people have been displaced every year between 2008 and 2014. This is one person per second.

During the aforementioned years, the amount of people displaced by disasters was almost double the amount of those that had to flee their homes because of armed conflict.

When it comes to climate change related displacement, Alex Randall makes a distinction between two types of reasons for it: sudden onset and slow onset disasters.

Sudden natural hazards force people to leave their homes quickly, within hours or days or weeks. Slow onset changes, like drought, affect people’s lives more slowly and allows more time for considering options.

“Both are linked to climate change, but in both cases, people tend to move short distances, within countries”, Randall emphasises.

According to the UN Refugee Agency there are about 660 000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Will climate change mean more refugees?

So, the somewhat alarmist story that concentrates on a flow of climate refugees from the South to the North is far from the entire picture of climate related displacement.
Not only because most people don’t go very far when a disaster strikes, but also because they might simply not be allowed, or have the resources, to cross a border.
Even if climate change as a driver of migration is now starting to be recognized internationally, there is no such thing as a ‘climate refugee’ in international law. Displaced people must have another reason to get asylum, or for example a work permit, if they are to migrate legally.
But the question that remains is: will climate change increase displacement through increasing conflicts?
The link between conflicts and climate change is not direct, but it is often seen as one element in exacerbating or fuelling conflicts.
In one study, two researchers from Columbia University found a link between warmer or colder than usual weather and the amount of refugees. Between 2000–2014 there were more asylum seekers in the EU when there were more weather anomalies in the countries of origin.
“Our findings support the assessment that climate change, especially continued warming, will add another ‘threat multiplier’ that induces people to seek refuge abroad”, the study concludes.
If the warming continues in the future, they predict an increase of 28 percent in asylum applications in the EU by the end of the century.
Also, Alex Randall estimates that climate change is also likely to increase cross-border migration in the future. But by how much?
“It depends on how governments respond to [increased climate-induced migration]: with more border security or with support for people who are forced to move,” he says.
All in all, warming weather is just one piece of the puzzle.
If there are other job prospects, one might not have to move even if weather conditions change. If there are resources to get water from elsewhere when wells dry up, a conflict might not start as easily.

And finally, if there are possibilities to leave a destroyed country when other possibilities are exhausted, life might go on.

A lot depends not only on how well we succeed in mitigating climate change, but also on the resilience of local communities and how the international community responds to the changing circumstances.

As Anitta Kynsilehto puts it: attempts to address these complex issues require, first and foremost, political will to enhance global social justice.

Lifejacket Graveyard​

The so-called lifejacket graveyard in the Northern parts of Lesbos, Greece.

Lifejacket graveyard

Text: Veera Vehkasalo
Photos: Vanessa Riki

Each asylum seeker that lands on the shores of the Greek islands brings an estimated eight kilograms of mostly plastic trash with them. Most of this ends up in piles around the islands waiting for their destiny – and the situation of asylum seekers stuck on the islands is not very different.

There is a place in the north of the island of Lesbos, high above sea level, that has been filled with life vests and discarded boats. The orange-spotted scene opens up at the end of a small winding road between hilltops. Behind one of them lies the Aegean Sea, and the silence is broken occasionally by the sea birds that circle above the area.

Life jackets, pieces of rubber dinghies, clothes, and pretty much anything one can bring when going to a new country – like a travel guide to Austria – lie in huge mounds out in the open. Tens of broken boats repose on the outskirts of these piles and further up the hill.

Locals call this the lifejacket graveyard, and it is a resting place for things that have ended up in the sea or were left behind by refugees after they reached the shores of the island.

The lifejacket graveyard is a place where they bring things that have ended up in the sea or were left behind by refugees after they have gotten ashore the island. 

Even if the graveyard is far from tourist or residential centers on the island, it is not deserted. At regular intervals a car drives over, and people come out to circle around the piles of trash silently, like they were visiting a memorial.
Among those people are two twenty-something Norwegians, Inger Asheim and Johanne Saltnes, who have come to the island to volunteer for an organization that helps asylum seekers. The visit to the lifejacket graveyard is part of their volunteer training, and the place has made quite an impression on them.
“Each lifejacket that you see has belonged to an individual. A person that has their own story and background, who wanted to come to Europe. That is a lot of individuals”, says Saltnes wiping her tears.

The lifejacket graveyard made Inger Asheim and Johanne Saltnes think about the people who had been wearing these vests.

In 2015–2016 over a million asylum seekers and migrants crossed the border to Europe through Greece. A large part of them landed on Lesbos, separated from Turkey only by a narrow strait.
When they arrived on the shores, in the beginning there wasn’t any transport and it was even forbidden for locals to give them a lift, so people had to continue on foot to get to the reception centers that were often tens of kilometers away. Obviously, they carried nothing extra with them.
They left behind everything they could, but especially the boats or rubber dinghies that they arrived in, lifejackets and wet clothes. Many vests also floated to the shore from the sea after boats had sunk.
During the peak years, the aid workers and volunteers had their hands full with even trying to help all the people arriving. It was out of the question that they would have had the time to start collecting trash.
“The problem was huge, since the boats would arrive, and nobody would clean after them”, says Alkisti.

In 2017, Alkisti coordinated the beach clean-up project for a Swedish organization called Lighthouse Relief. She does not want to give her full name in this article. The organization mainly helps asylum seekers when they land on the island, but they have also done beach cleaning projects since 2016.

“It got so bad that the layer of trash on the beaches was almost a meter deep. You would walk along the coast and see just plastic, no rocks”, she describes the situation back in 2017.

Also Demetris Lekkas, a specialist in waste management from the University of the Aegean in Lesbos, remembers the scenery well.
“It was shocking, when you approached the island on an airplane, you saw a bright orange beach”

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Life jackets, pieces of rubber dinghies, clothes, and a travel guide to Austria that have been collected from the beaches and brought to the lifejacket graveyard.

According to an analysis by Lekkas and his team, some 1000–1500 tons of waste came with the asylum seekers between January 2015 and May 2016 on Lesbos alone.

Stelios Katsanevakis from the same university has estimated that per person, there was about 8 kilograms of waste.
Most of the weight came from rubber boats. But looking at the piles in the graveyard, you mostly see life jackets – they are light and take up a lot of space in relation to their weight, which makes them challenging to store and transport.

The above mentioned 1000–1500 tons of waste takes almost 20 000 cubic meters of space. You could fill a standard 50 meter long swimming pool with it ten times over.
Lekkas evaluates some 80% of the waste could be recovered and recycled. But it is not easy to dispose of, since the materials have to be separated mainly by hand, and it has little monetary value if sold to be burned or reused.
The challenge is the same on islands in the area, such as Chios and Samos, that have received large flows of asylum seekers.

So far, the islands have not had the resources to deal with the waste, so in practice they are waiting for funding from the state or EU-levels to either recycle or incinerate it. Lesbos aims for the former, the near-by island of Chios the latter.
Meanwhile, the waste waits under the sun. In Lesbos alone there are altogether three  landfills, the so-called lifejacket graveyard, an improptu open landfill, being just one of them. It is also the only one that is accessible to outsiders.

The lifejacket graveyard will probably not disappear any time soon.

Still the scenery in Lesbos has changed a lot since 2016. You can find heaps of lifejackets only in these landfills.
In Lesbos the cleanup was done by hundreds of volunteers and, municipal and regional workers. They were even assisted by local amateur divers and the boat owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Like most things when thousands of people arrived every day, the cleanup was a combined effort of many actors and more or less improvised according to the needs or emergencies of the moment.
Cooperation between them was not always rosy. Volunteers and volunteer organizations seem to disagree with the officials about who did most of the hard work, but be it as it is, the beaches are mostly clean now.
Antonis Velegrakis, a marine ecologist from Lesbos, says that also the coastal waters have been cleaned up to 4–5 meters. Deeper waters still have some boat wrecks, motors and their batteries, which can leak harmful substances into the sea. But he says locating them and getting them out of the water would be both difficult and expensive.
Even just cleaning the shores has not been simple, since it was mainly manual work and often done a bit too long after the material ended up there.
Volunteers explain that the trash had to be often dug out of sand, water or from under rocks, and the heavy dinghies had to be sliced up with hand knifes. And there was also a lot of other plastic trash on the shores that they collected at the same time.
“It was really physical work, because a lot of these beaches you would have to hike or even climb with ropes to get to some of the places”, Alkisti explains.

“And it is really difficult to extract all the material by land. So, we would package it, pile it together, and the refugee rescue boat Proactiva or some of the local fishermen would help us to tow it away if the weather was appropriate.”

A piece of a rubber dinghy buried on the shore of Lesbos.

There has been more time to clean now that the arrivals in Greece have diminished, partly due to the EU-Turkey deal on refugees made in 2016. After the deal, asylum seekers that arrive in the Greek islands can no longer continue to the mainland or further into Europe, unless they get asylum or an official transfer.
In practice the people have been contained on the islands, which before were just crossing points.
In the beginning of this year there were still hundreds of people a week on average arriving on the islands. But now there is approximate structure to this, the sense of emergency and hurry has diminished, and also the lifejackets and boats are now mostly collected directly after the boats land.
This also makes their recovery easier, since the longer they stay on the ground, the harder it is to get them out.
“Still last year we still found material that was two or three years old”, tells Clara Marshall, Head of communications at Lighthouse Relief, that still continues their cleanup projects every summer.
“There is always something to do, getting to some of the places is very difficult. When we start again this June, we will continue as long as the weather allows”, she says.
One of the aims of their cleanup project has been to support the local community and give something back to the people that have been affected by the arrival of the refugees in many ways.
Trash-filled beaches can affect tourism, which can for its part turn the locals against the migrants, since tourism is very important to the economy of the islands.
Also Amir, an Afghan who grew up in Iran, has thought about the effects of the trash on the islands nature and locals. He arrived in Lesbos in 2016 as an asylum seeker, and has now received asylum. In his free time he make small trips to the shores to clean them up.

It’s also linked to his job, where he prepares bags and other upcycled products out of discarded lifejackets and pieces of dinghies. The Safe Passage workshop employs around ten people with a refugee background and uses its income to support asylum seekers.

Amir works at the Safe Passage workshop in Lesbos, making upcycled products out of discarded lifejackets and dinghies.

Amir, with his colleagues, make their living with the same materials that brought them over the sea. The materials give them a chance of a life outside of the refugee camps.

“The materials remind me of our trip and what goes on here in and in the whole world – about the refugee crisis”, Amir says sitting behind his sewing machine.

He, like many others, was not even wearing a lifejacket when he arrived.

“They asked 100 euros for them, I could not afford it”, he says.

“In the boat that I arrived in, about half of us had one. Different smugglers have different practices. Some of my friends say they paid some 50 Turkish lira [around 8 euros] for theirs”, he continues.When you can afford one, it is not even a given that it will save you in case of emergency.

Farshad Shamgholi, who was the Emergency Response Coordinator for Lighthouse Relief, told us last June that smugglers increasingly sell people life vests that are more dangerous than useful.

The ones made for adults often have materials that suck in water when they get wet. The ones for children are not made for saving anyone, but for assisting them to learn how to swim. In the back of those vests you can see the words “Warning, will not protect from drowning!” in clear English.

The Safe Passage workshop where Amir works is one of the small-scale recycling and upcycling projects that are abundant on Lesbos.

Larger scale solutions might be needed to empty the landfills, but ironically many recycling projects complain they have trouble getting materials from the landfills or after landings. The municipality says everyone can apply for a permission, but various activists and organizations claimed it was hard or impossible to get them.

Last summer there was even talk of people who were arrested after taking materials out of the lifejacket graveyard – which does seem absurd, since in practice you are arresting someone for stealing something you want to get rid of.

We could not confirm this. But, be it as it may, soon it will be difficult to use these materials. As one former volunteer explained, the problem is that since the lifejackets lie out in the open, UV degradation will destroy them from the top, and mold from the bottom. So even the little that could be done with them will become impossible.

The life vests are slowly degrading in the landfills.

The life vests may not be a major environmental problem, but they are highly symbolic. Not only in the sense that they have become essential for the image we have of the refugee arriving in Europe, but that they are also interesting not only as life vests, but also as waste.
Elia Petridou, a social anthropologist specializing in material culture from the University of the Aegean, emphasizes that waste is not only something material, it is a social concept. In the last few years she has studied upcycling projects that work with waste related to refugee arrivals.
Petridou refers to a classic anthropological theory, originating from Mary Douglas, that defined waste as matter out of place. To paraphrase it: A hair on your head is just a hair. It is not something dirty, or something you would not want to touch. But when it falls on the floor, gets out the place we consider its own, it becomes dirt.
“When you talk about environment and waste, you talk about people, and here you talk about wasted people. When you talk about how you are going to integrate waste into social life, you talk about how you are going to integrate people into social life”, Petridou says.
She explains that the thinking behind upcycling for some of the people involved is that the waste on the island is not a burden, but an opportunity.
“They don’t see it as a problem, they see the possibility of reintegrating all these people, and this material, and create new things.”
Not everyone shares this thought, and both the people and the vests are often described in surprisingly similar ways. And at the moment, even their fates might not that different.
The lifejackets lie in the landfill, waiting for someone to decide what happens to them.

Visiting the overcrowded refugee camp in Moria, Lesbos, you cannot help thinking that this is what is done to the people as well. They are stuck in camps on the island, waiting for a decision that could take them away. And only the selected few can go.

Gaziantep Municipality Struggles Against Waste With The Support Of UNDP​

Gaziantep, a city of 2,2, million people, is located near the Syrian border and is currently hosting 350 000 Syrian refugees, according to Turkish government data. 

Gaziantep municipality struggles against waste with the support of UNDP

Text: Nina Jaatinen
Photos: Vanessa Riki

Turkey, a country of 80 million people, has the largest refugee population in the world since 2014. As of April 2019, this includes 3.6 million Syrians and over 400 000 refugees with other nationalities.
Although the sudden population increase has posed significant challenges to the Turkish government at both the national and local level, they have responded well to the situation and allowed the refugees to use their national social services.
Although the sudden population increase has posed significant challenges to the Turkish government at both the national and local level, they have responded well to the situation and allowed the refugees to use their national social services. This includes issues such as additional generation of waste, which has led to additional health and environmental risks.
The Turkish government has invested over 37 billion USD since the start of the crisis and overall has shown strong leadership in their response. However, support from the international community has been critical through both grants and loans from donor countries, implemented and coordinated with the support from UN agencies and NGOs.
“This is the largest refugee crisis in the world. Until now the Government of Turkey has spent approximately 37 billion dollars to address the impact”, says Sertac Turhal, Project Manager under the Syria Crisis and Resilience Response Program of UNDP Turkey.

UNDP Turkey was one of the first agencies to support the Government with its response to the Syria crisis in 2014. One of the main areas of work is UNDP Turkey’s support to municipalities by investing in additional waste management infrastructure and technical support. The support is provided primarily to municipalities in the south eastern parts of Turkey, located next to Syrian border, where approximately 1.5 million Syrians live. UNDP Turkey works closely with the municipalities of provinces such as Gaziantep, Kilis, Hatay, and Sanliurfa and offers support on issues including solid waste and wastewater management.

“ Waste is the biggest problem”

“One of the main challenges for the municipalities is the waste management. The population grew so fast in such a short period of time due to the arrival of the Syrians, that it was difficult for the municipalities to respond to the high increase in demand of basis services”, says Turhal.
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

One of the biggest environmental challenges caused by the Syrian crisis has been the additional generation of waste, which in turn has led to additional health and environmental risks. Currently in Gaziantep, the amount of waste has increased threefold year-on-year.

“One of the main challenges for the municipalities is the waste management. The population grew so fast in such a short period of time due to the arrival of the Syrians, that it was difficult for the municipalities to respond to the high increase in demand of basis services”, says Turhal.

One of the biggest environmental challenges caused by the Syrian crisis has been the additional generation of waste, which in turn has led to additional health and environmental risks. At the moment in Gaziantep the amount of waste has increased threefold per year.

A good example of the support provided by UNDP to the municipality is Gaziantep, a city of 2.2 million people, which is currently hosting 350 000 Syrian refugees, according to Government data.

In Gaziantep, the amount of solid waste last year (2018) was 650 000 tons, whereas in 2017 it was 533 000 tons. “Normal growth usually amounts to 30 000 tons of waste increase per year, but has now increased by 100 000 tons per year”, says Gökhan Yaman, the Environmental Engineer of the Gaziantep Municipality. He adds that this amount of waste in the Gaziantep city was forecasted for around year 2028, but instead they have already reached it.

If not treated properly and dumping it illegally, waste means a huge risk for environment and especially the water resources. In addition to this, if waste is not managed properly and becomes visible in community, there are additional risks related to social cohesion and negative perceptions of refugees.

Local Turkish municipalities have faced the challenge of a sudden increase in the amount of waste as a result of the incoming refugees. This has led to a huge task of reorganizing and enlarging the overall waste management in a modern, effective and environmentally friendly way.

“Over the last five years 500 000, Syrians have arrived to Gaziantep. I don’t think there is any city which can take such amount of people in such a short period of time without additional investments to address infrastructural and environmental challenges”, says Yaman.

The importance of planning

Due to the sudden growth of the population, the Municipality of Gaziantep had no choice but to build new landfill sites earlier than originally planned.
Yaman says, that they have spent 70 million TL (Turkish lira) to reduce environmental impact and improve environmental services, constructing additional waste transfer stations, wastewater and waste treatment plants and waste disposal sites. The municipality also invested in the central landfill areas to extend their lifespan.
“For the waste management alone, we have spent 30 million TL between 2015–2018”, reports Yaman.

With that money they built two new landfill sites in 2018, which they originally planned to build by 2025. The sites were built using modern technology, with a collection system and treatment for leachate water.

A entire team in the waste management department in the Gaziantep Municipality is working to quickly adjust the city to meet the challenges of a the fast changing situation. Environmental engineers Mahir Emre Yalçın, Gökhan Yaman and Mehmet Kiliç are standing in the front of new kind of waste sorting bins are in test use in the lobby of Gaziantep Municipality.

In addition to the waste management infrastructure, environmental challenges have also strained the human resource capacities of the Municipality of Gaziantep. Due to urgent need in various environmental projects, the staff of the environment unit in the municipalities has grown from three to 20 employees over five years. That has also meant more expenses to cover.

Yaman says that one important aspect they have learned from the Syrian crisis, is the importance of planning. “Every plan has to be made with long-term perspectives – from 50 to 100 years forward.”

Being innovative means saving money

“Thanks to the new waste transfer stations, we have solved the problem of illegal dumping on the roads. In addition to this, in 2019 we were also able to close all the illegal dumping sites”, tells Yaman.
The support provided by UNDP Turkey has had a positive impact so far. “It’s a very, very effective system. And it is a concept now, which other municipalities are copying. It was a pilot project for us. Now our support has become an example for others”, says Turhal.
In addition to the provision of waste management infrastructure and equipment, which directly supports municipalities, the support provided by UNDP has also saved money for the municipalities. “Whatever we do, we try to do it in an innovative way. Small funds, large impact and new technologies. It’s a new way of thinking for municipalities”, says Turhal.

Amongst others, UNDP Turkey has supported the Municipality of Gaziantep with the provision of two new transfer stations as well as two large waste trucks, both funded by the EU.

A picture showing a 3D visualization of one of the new transfer stations built in Gaziantep with the help of UNDP. This picture is placed at the UNDP Turkey’s office in Ankara.

He gives an example of using waste vehicles. UNDP Turkey invested in large waste trucks and they supported the municipalities with system optimization. Now, instead of using small waste trucks, larger trucks are used for transferring the waste from transfer stations to the landfill sites and also more efficient routes are used. Overall, this has resulted in the more efficient use of time and resources.
In this way, the Gaziantep municipality saves money because the waste transfers take fewer working hours and fewer vehicles.
“According to our calculations, the municipality in Gaziantep is saving 400 000 USD per year just with our support on this particular part of the waste value chain”, says Turhal.

Now there is a plan to complete a new mechanical sorting station by the end of 2019, funded by the EU and implemented by UNDP with ILBANK. There is also a plan for a mechanical separation facility and a biogas facility to be implemented in 2019. After that, Gaziantep will be able to separate organic and other waste more efficiently. The new site will be finished in 2019 and it will be built in line with all modern environmental requirements.

The main challenges are time and money

Reducing any negative environmental impact of the Syrian crisis in Turkey has been a critical challenge to manage for the municipalities in the South East.
“Lack of funding, the need to respond in very short period of time and in some cases lack of preparedness of the municipalities”, says Turhal when asked what are some of the main challenges faced.

“When you say “Syrians” very view people are thinking of municipality infrastructure.”

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Sertac Turhal (right), Project Manager for the Syria Crisis and Resilience Response Program – UNDP Turkey – and E. Rusen Inceoglu (left), Communications Expert for the Syria Crisis Response and Resilience Program – UNDP Turkey – both planning future activity in their office in Ankara. 

UNDP Turkey also supported three municipalities with the establishment of project management offices. Those offices provided technical support, for example to strengthen the municipal capacities to plan, budget and manage projects, including those funded externally.

“Our priority is to answer to the Syrian crisis, but yes, we are also trying to ensure more and more environmental needs. All that we are doing, all those facilities we are building are environmentally sustainable facilities.”

(The figures used throughout are taken from the period 11/2018, unless otherwise mentioned)


 •    Gaziantep is the 6th biggest city in Turkey
 •    Gaziantep’s population is 2 028 000. This was the population estimation of

 •    Gaziantep in 2023.

 •    Number of refugees in Gaziantep is 429 000 (http://www.goc.gov.tr/icerik/dgmm-legislation_913_1311)
 •    There are 1.5 million Syrians living in Turkey’s south east border area and cities
 •    More than 96% of the refugees live in urban areas and just 4% is in the camps
 •    The Turkish government has spent 30 billion dollars on the Syrian crisis


 •    UNDP started to respond to the Syrian crisis in 2014
 •    UNDP have built two solid waste transfer stations to Gaziantep
 •    UNDP has donated four solid waste transfer vehicles (semitrailers)
 •    UNDP has donated four solid waste collection trucks with capacity of 7+1 cubic meters
 •    UNDP has donated four solid waste collection trucks with a capacity of 11 cubic meters

 •    An additional 70 million TL has been invested in transfer stations, a leachate treatment plant and for waste disposal
 •    For housing, 75 000 houses/homes have been built and 5000 more will be built. It will cost 450 million TL
 •    For waste management, Gaziantep has spent 30 million TL (2015–2018)
 •    Two landfill sites were built in 2018. Originally these were planned for 2020/2023

 •    2011: 437 000 tons of solid waste
 •    2017: 533 000 tons of solid waste
 •    2018: 650 000 tons of solid waste
 •    These amounts should have only been growing by 30 000 per year, but they have been growing by 100 000 tons per year.

Climate Change Will Displace People – Is The World Admitting It Now?​

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

A child in a Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece 2018.

Climate change will displace people
– is the world admitting it now?

Text: Veera Vehkasalo

Photos: Vanessa Riki
So far, the international legal system does not recognize people who move due environmental degradation or climate change as refugees. But recently the link between environment and displacement has, at least, been subject to more attention at the international level.

You have probably heard about the Global Compact on Migration. It is the UN compact that almost toppled various European governments last fall and was also the target of a major fake news campaign.

A process that was initiated in the UN by Obama in 2016, eventually led to an – unbinding – compact on migration that was accepted in December 2018. But not by all: it was opposed by the USA, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel, and or absence or abstention of tens of others, including Austria, Australia and Italy.

This was certainly in part because it caused so much public resistance, even if a lot of it was based on incorrect information, and the compact was a fitting target for the anti-immigrant ideological right.

All in all, many see it as a historical achievement that an agreement was even reached in this political climate. What you might not know, is that many see this compact as an achievement especially from the point of view of an environmental issue.

“It is the first international agreement that sees the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation as drivers of migration. It might be the most important thing in this compact”, says Ida Schauman from the Finnish Refugee Council.

The compact mentions in length, and in multiple passages, about the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters, and their links to migration.

“There was a lot of interest by countries during the negotiations to highlight climate change and natural disasters. The issue is as well addressed as it could be in such a text”, says Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a Thematic Specialist at the International Organization for Migration.

A change in thinking

For a layperson, the link might seem obvious – well yes, people will move if their village is permanently flooded, or desertification makes their fields infertile.
But in the context of international diplomacy, what matters is how things are talked about and which words get printed – whose way of seeing the world and narrative is accepted.
This wording also has a direct consequence on what international organizations, including UN agencies, work on and who they cooperate with, and what sort of projects get supported.
The compact also mentions various ways to address the issue, from disaster preparedness to climate change adaptation and mitigation in the countries of origin.
“The goal is that people don’t have to migrate if they don’t want to”, summarizes Traore Chazalnoel.
Of course, it remains to be seen how countries will act on what was agreed, since the compacts are non-binding. But at least the need to address climate change and other environmental causes of forced migration might get more attention and funding worldwide.
“The fact that over 150 countries are behind this, and acknowledge these things are connected and something has to be done, helps us to bring the cause forward internationally,” says Marika Palosaari, Regional Programme Coordinator from UN Environment.
“It is a historically significant step forward that they are included,” she emphasizes.
Already the space that these questions get in international discussions reflect a wider recognition of the effects of climate change and the links between displacement and environmental degradation.

“The thinking has really changed. Partly because climate change and environmental issues have gotten to the political agenda in a completely different way than in the past”, Palosaari says.

Mohammed, from Syria, washing his clothes in the refugee camp of Moria, in Lesvos, Greece 2018.

But what about refugees?

But what is striking following the commotion over the Compact on Migration, is that few people talking about it even knew that there was another one – the Global Compact on Refugees – that was negotiated alongside it.

The drafting of these compacts started at the same time, in 2016. However, one concentrates on refugees, people fleeing from their countries, and the other on migration at large. ‘Migrant’ as a term does not specify why people are on the move – it even includes people leaving for work or family reasons.

The compact on refugees hardly got any public attention or opposition, and no one demonstrated, at least very visibly, on the streets against it. Furthermore, last December 181 countries out of 193 voted in favor of adopting the Compact on Refugees – whereas the Compact on Migration got only 152 to votes in favor.

This might seem odd for two text with the same juridical status and similar themes. Interestingly, environmental issues are glaringly absent from the Compact on Refugees.

Consider the difference: climate change and environmental reasons for displacement are mentioned in at least seven chapters in the Compact on Migration. It has a whole section dedicated to the issue.

Instead the Compact on Refugees mentions climate and environmental degradation just once – and in a telling context:

“While not in themselves causes of refugee movements, climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements. In the first instance, addressing root causes is the responsibility of countries at the origin of refugee movements.” [emphasis mine]

This formulation carefully avoids mentioning environmental reasons or climate change as direct causes or drivers of refugee movements, unlike the compact on migrants. It also leaves the responsibility to the countries of origin.

Why? Are the facts not the same for refugees and migrants?

One important difference is that there is already an international, and binding, agreement on refugees and refugee rights, and a whole UN agency (UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency) that works with them. There isn’t any similar widely accepted international text or an organization – with similar duties – for migrants, or any specific migrant rights.

These Global Compacts now are both non-binding, but whatever is written about refugees, can be linked to these binding obligations much more easily, and could hint at the opening up of the definition of a refugee.

If it was stated in an international agreement that people flee from their homes for these reasons, it would create a basis for the idea of climate refugees or environmental refugees.

This would have direct consequences on who could get a refugee status and on what basis. Tens or even hundreds of millions of people whose homes are threatened by climate change might apply for asylum.

Climate refugees, climate migrants, people on the move…

Currently, climate or environmental refugees simply do not exist juridically.
The current definition of a refugee is grounded on the Refugee Convention, which is – even if each country has their own legislation and asylum procedures – the backbone of international protection. It goes as follows:
“A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
If you are forced to leave your home island because rising sea levels leave it under water, you cannot apply for asylum based on that. It is not considered war, violence or persecution.
But should this be changed? Shouldn’t we have a way to give the possibility of moving to the people that have no option but to leave their homes because of climate change?
“Some think climate change should absolutely be in the definition of a refugee. Others believe it would make a now strong refugee status politically much weaker”, says Ida Schauman.
Schauman even reminds us that the UNHCR is very careful about how they define a refugee, and they emphasize the centrality of conflicts and humanitarian causes that are included in the official definition.

“If you broaden the definition, some are afraid that the states will stop following it. And since we have reached a rather strong juridical status for refugees internationally, it is risky to open it up and broaden it”, she adds.

Children in front of a water tank in the refugee camp of Bar Elias, in Lebanon 2017.

Since the issue is so hot at the moment, renegotiating the Refugee Convention – that dates back to 1951 – and reconsidering the definition of a refugee might actually lead to something much weaker.
In New Zealand there was a case in which a person from Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota, applied for asylum on this basis that climate change was threatening to cause his home island to be swallowed by the rising sea level.

His case was turned down by the national high court on the basis of the absence of international law that would tackle this issue.

“I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me,” he said to the BBC in 2015, after being deported back to Kiribati.
Milla Vaha, a researcher from the University of Turku, reminds us that even if the international agreements do not recognize climate refugees, there are also local possibilities for giving residence permits on the basis of environmental reasons.
Vaha says the most extensive agreement that could allow this at the moment is the Cartagena convention in Latin America. It allows for the possibility of giving protection on the basis of “other reasons that threaten societal order”, which theoretically could also mean environmental reasons.
National humanitarian protection laws, like the one currently in Sweden and previously in Finland, could also be used to protect those leaving for environmental reasons. For instance, if the person effectively cannot go back to their home country due to desertification or floods.
But these are all still only theoretical possibilities – as far as Vaha knows, there have been no cases in which protection has been given on grounds of climate change.
Traore Chazalnoel reminds us that the Compact on Migration recognizes there is a need to create pathways for people to legally move in these cases, even if not on refugee basis.

There is talk about humanitarian visas, temporary work permits, or developing other solutions for people compelled to leave for environmental reasons. Of course, again, it remains to be seen if this will be actualized anywhere.

The burden of proof

One challenge to the idea of a climate or environmental refugee is that is hard to conclusively demonstrate that environmental reasons are actually the thing that forces people to leave.
This is both true in an individual case, where it would have to be proven in court when seeking asylum, and more widely on a systemic level.
The slow onset of environmental change is not quite as obvious as someone bombing your city or putting you in jail for your political opinions. The environment doesn’t send you signed death threats that you could bring to court.
“The way climate change creates human movement will always be mediated through some other force, like labor markets or levels of wealth and infrastructure”, says Alex Randall, Director of the Climate and Migration project on this video.
An extreme case is a natural disaster, but otherwise it is not easy to show what the fundamental reason is for people leaving, since environmental changes affect the whole of society from livelihoods to living conditions. What’s more, people’s decisions depend on many issues, such as wealth, job prospects and whether your state will assist you in case of emergency.
“It is very difficult to pick out a group of people that are climate refugees from a wider group of refugees and migrants. […] What we have, is potentially a huge group of people with a climate change dimension in their movement”, adds Randall.
In order for the situation to change, the challenge is that the public craves simple answers, courts want proof, and journalists need short headlines.

And meanwhile, millions of people who will have to leave their homes because of floods, drought or disasters still have little or no hope of getting legal status elsewhere.

Cleaning The Beaches Of Lesbos​

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Cleaning the beaches of Lesbos


Text: Veera Vehkasalo

Photos: Vanessa Riki

Beaches spotted with orange vests, plastic vessels and other trash related to refugee landings have been one symbol of the humanitarian emergency on the Greek islands. Volunteers have played an important role in the cleanup, and even if a lot of the trash is gone, the work still goes on as people keep arriving.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

A dinghy that carried almost 60 people across the sea from Turkey to the shores of a small fishing village in Skala Sikamineas, in the Northeastern corner of Lesbos.

The village is the base for an organization called Lighthouse Relief, that helps migrants when they land on the shores. They also started doing cleanup projects in 2016, when the shores of the islands were covered in bright orange life jackets and other waste from the landings.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Lighthouse Relief has done cleanup projects every summer since 2016. Last year they did one in cooperation with another organization, Refugee Rescue.

Farshad Shamgholi, the Emergency Response Coordinator, goes through a pile of life vests from people who landed in Skala Sikaminia on a Sunday in June 2018.

Even if most central places have been cleaned and the arrivals have diminished since 2015–2016, people still continue coming and a lot of waste is left in harder to reach areas.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

In the summer of 2018 Rohanna Nilsson, the coordinator for the project, heads out with the volunteers to a place where they know there is rubbish on the beaches.

The project runs on a low budget: they have one car that they share with the rescue team, two diving knives and two cutters.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment
Getting to the place to be cleaned can take even hours of walking from the end of the drivable road.

Once at the spot, the first task is collecting the trash. The hardest part is usually the dinghies that are stuck under sand or rocks. Having to dig them out makes the work much slower.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

“Usually in a day we can collect one or two dinghies if they are buried under the rocks. We also collect lifejackets if there are some from recent landings”, Nilsson says.

The life vests that smugglers sell are often fake and filled with materials that are more dangerous than helpful.

“After it has been in the water for 20–30 minutes, it will fill with water and rather than helping you float, it becomes so heavy it pulls you down”, Nilsson explains showing the insides of a life jacket found on the beach.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Volunteers come from all over the world. Nawwar Arrouk from Syria and Leslie Reid from the USA are digging out a dinghy.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Arrouk travelled from Syria to the island of Cos with his siblings in 2016. Now they have asylum in Sweden and he saved money all year to come and volunteer in Lesbos for the summer. 

“It was weird coming back here, but kind of in a good way. Cleaning up the beaches and getting rid of especially the plastic is really important. I just read an article that said in 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, that’s really alarming.”

The original motivation of the cleanup project is to collect materials related to the trip that migrants take over the sea – like dinghies, life vests, clothes and pieces of boats and motors. Often that can mean also personal items, like documents or credit cards.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

“I found an ID of a girl from Afghanistan, I think she was 16 or something. And children’s clothes. It is hard to see that”, says Ana Gonzales from Spain.

She feels good about the work, but it made her wonder how people in Europe can forget about the refugee situation.

The cleaners also pick up all the other trash they find.

” Styrofoam from fishing boats, polystyrene, small plastic bags, tubes. Around 30 to 40 percent of the items we collect are bottles and bottle caps”, Nilsson says.

This rubbish has been left behind or thrown out by locals, fishermen and tourists, or washed onto the shore with the currents like on any beach.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Other things are put into bags or piled up, but the dinghies are washed after they are dug out. They need to be clean because the plastics are used for upcycling projects.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

When they are clean, the dinghies still need to be cut, so that they are less heavy and easier to transport. At the same time different materials are separated. The softer, cuttable plastic goes to upcycling projects to create products like bags or earrings.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

“The aim is to recycle everything we are getting so it gets used again”, says Hernan Grecco Fenari, a volunteer from Spain who works with both the landings and with this eco project.

He thinks that since they help people arrive on the shores of the island, it is important they also take care of what is left behind.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

Everything is packed into piles and bags. This area was accessible on foot, therefore the materials can be carried to the car.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

Often it is quite a hike to get back to the road. But many places can be only reached by climbing or from the sea, which means the cleaners have to get a refugee rescue boat or a local fisherman to take them there and back.

This is also why they still have rubbish that has been lying there for even two or three years.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
Nilsson and Nick Wright from England greet a local, back at Skala Sikamineas. Nilsson says one important aspect of the cleanup is that it is a way to show that people working on refugee issues also care about the local community and environment of where they are based.

“We want to do our part as well and give a little bit back to the local community, to help bring the tourists back”, she says.

Beyond The Debris – The Environment Is A Major Victim Of The Syrian Conflict​

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Four oil workers at a break from work at the oil refinery site, one of the dozens semi professional refineries that are operational throughout north eastern Syria. Photo by Wim Zwijnenburg, November 24, 2018. 

Beyond the debris – the environment is a major victim of the Syrian conflict

Text: Hanne-Mari Tarvonen
: Wim Zwijnenburg and Shutterstock

Four oil workers at a break from work at the oil refinery site, one of the dozens semi professional refineries that are operational throughout north eastern Syria.

The most significant environmental consequences of the conflict in Syria have been caused by makeshift oil refineries, destroyed infrastructure and debris, collapsed waste collection system and munitions residues.

Depleted uranium and other hazardous substances that are part of munitions. Breakdown of societal mechanisms such as environmental governance and the collapse of waste collection. Contamination of base-water supply. These are just a few of the consequences that armed conflict can bring to the environment.

The burning oil fields in Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991, Agent Orange spread through the jungles of Vietnam and bombed oil refineries and petrochemical plants by Nato during the Balkan war at the end of the 1990s, all tell the devastating story about environmental degradation due to the consequences of war.

The toxic remnants of war, TRW are a range of toxic substances used in munitions, the toxic legacies of targeted industrial sites and the collapse of societal mechanisms to assess and reduce environmental hazards. So they are toxic or radiological substances that have resulted from conflict or military activities that form a hazard to humans and ecosystems.

In Syria, the TRW are multiple and broad. However, they’ve been overshadowed by the immediate humanitarian crisis – even though they are largely connected as the TRW can directly impact public health.

The task to map out the environmental consequences of the Syrian conflict has been hard because of the continuing conflict on the ground. A Dutch NGO PAX released the report Amidst the debris… in 2015, which provided a snapshot of the environmental hazards associated with the conflict.

The research was based on assessments made by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and others of previous conflicts (from AfghanistanLebanonIraqKosovoSerbiaGaza and Ukraine) on their environmental impacts, and associated public health risks. The researchers used available data from satellite imagery, social media and UN reports.

Makeshift oil refineries emerged after destruction of established oil production sites

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

A rusty pumping-jack at the Rmeilan oil field in north-east Syria.
Photo November 22, 2018 by Wim Zwijnenburg

The author of the report, Wim Zwijnenburg’s work focuses on emerging military technologies and their impact on how wars are being fought and the consequences of arms proliferation. According to Zwijnenburg, one of the most significant environmental consequences of the Syrian conflict was the increase of makeshift oil refineries.

“Because of the impact of the destruction of the Syrian oil industry – workers fleeing or being killed, or workers joining armed groups and the targeting of the refineries by the Russians and US led coalition – people started to refine their own crude oil”, Zwijnenburg confirms.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

An oil worker poses at semi-professional oil refinery near Al Qataniyah, north east Syria, while in the background the burning of oil waste started, spitting out huge flames and black clouds of smoke. Photo November 24, 2018 by Wim Zwijnenburg.

“Civilians work there. Children work there basically heating up crude oil in a makeshift way to refine oil for gasoline for trucks or motorcycles and for selling it to the wider market in Syria.”

PAX has been able to recognize over 330 clusters where such makeshift refineries exist throughout Syria, most of them located in Deir es Zour and Hasakah in the east of Syria. These makeshift refineries can have a huge environmental health impact for the people who work in them.

Syria’s heavy crude oil has a higher proportion of potentially hazardous contaminants, such as heavy metals. The density of heavy crude oil and its toxic constituents make it a particularly problematic contaminant for soil as well as surface water and groundwater resources.

The Department of the Environment of the so-called Self Administration in North East Syria has, due to environmental concerns, closed many of them, but some are still in operation.

“In their peak time there were dozens of clusters and each cluster would have 5 or 500 refineries. Some clusters are roadside clusters, where people just make it and sell to the cars directly, and some are clusters of thousands, which make oil for export purposes”, Zwijnenburg says.

Zwijnenburg explains that the makeshift refineries were one of the only sources of income for local communities in North East Syria.

“The best way to make a living was to refine oil for the traders. People couldn’t work on the land because of the conflict. That came with health consequences. People worked with very crude equipment, which caused pollution at sites, exposure to toxic substances and smoke. “

Rivers of oil filled the landscape in North East Syria

After talking to the people, it became clear to the researchers that locals were aware of the environmental consequences of oil refining but they felt they had no other option. It was the last resort.

“At the same time there has been a blockade of the Kurdish areas in the north by Turkey. There was the war in the south with ISIS and in the west you had the Syrian regime, and the Iraqi government that doesn’t deal with the Syrian Kurds, mostly because of the pressure from Turkey and Iran”, Zwijnenburg explains.

All this led to a situation in which people were not able to import any equipment to professionalize the refineries – or to deal with the waste flow from them. Huge lakes of waste product covered land in North East Syria.

“Rivers of oil floated through the landscape. In some locations due to rain, the agricultural land was overflowing with oil waste from the refineries. In one village, a significant amount of land was contaminated and had to be cleaned up.” 

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Oil waste has polluted the rivers and creeks at the Rmeilan oil fields, as is visible here in a creek near Tal Mashan. Photo November 24, 2018 by Wim Zwijnenburg.

The oil in spills from damaged oil refineries will partially degrade, a fraction will volatilize while the remainder can adhere to soil and sediments. In general, the short-chained and aromatic compounds pose a greater threat to humans and the environment as they move into soil and air, exposing people via inhalation.

Long-term exposure to some of the oil-related substances such as BTEX (comprising benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, can lead to various health problems, such as respiratory and kidney disorders, liver problems and cancer.

Oil fires caused by the bombed refineries release harmful substances into the air, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, PAHs and lead. In 2016 alone, air strikes by the US-led coalition damaged 600 oil installations in the country, and also 900 oil trucks were hit. In 2017, the figure was even higher: 872 installations and almost 500 oil and fuel trucks.

Additional oil refineries have also repeatedly come under attack from armed forces.

Infrastructure has been extensively destroyed

The Syrian conflict has caused the destruction of a huge amount of critical infrastructure, such as water, sewage and electricity systems. This destruction can have serious repercussions for the health of the people and the environment.
The damaged facilities have released pollutants that can lead to air, soil and water pollution. If attacks disable critical infrastructure, it can lead to severe cumulative outcomes.

One of the critical infrastructural elements that has suffered the most is the water supply network. It has regularly been targeted in the Syrian conflict.

NGOs and media sources claim that water supply systems, including dams, water pipes and waste treatment plants, have been damaged or destroyed due to attacks and counter-attacks, by both the regime and rebel forces.

Conflict rubble is all around

Already as of December 2014, 1.3 million houses – or one-third of all residential sites – have been destroyed in Syria.

The damage has displaced millions of civilians, and generated millions of tons of rubble, which can contain a variety of hazardous materials: asbestos, cement, heavy metals, domestic chemicals and combustion products. All of these may be present on the ground and can have detrimental effects on the environment and public health if they are not properly managed.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

The wast destruction of the buildings in the city of Homs in Syria. Photo by Smallcreative/Shutterstock.

The UN Satellite Program UNOSAT and damage assessment reports give an understanding of the amount of damage in urban areas.

“These reports should lead to better estimate of conflict rubble and how much debris has been created”, Zwijnenburg says.
But after estimating the quantity of the rubble, hard questions follow.

“How do you deal with all the rubble in the damaged areas? Are there safe landfills where they are put? How do people deal with exposure to rubble and waste that could lead to potential exposure to chemicals and so on?” Zwijnenburg asks.

UNEP has regularly stressed the need for the removal of conflict rubble and the effective management of polymer based materials (PBMs)in its post-conflict environmental assessments, for example in Gaza, where UNEP found both blue (crocidolite) and white (chrysolite) asbestos in several locations. Both are carcinogenic, but blue asbestos is 500 times more carcinogenic than its white form.

Massive quantities of pulverized building materials have been generated. These materials contain a mixture of potentially toxic cement dust, household waste, medical waste, asbestos and other hazardous materials.

Already prior to the conflict, most of the waste in Syria was deposited to open landfills, which can be very harmful for the environment. Now there are even more difficult questions regarding the landfills where the rubble is deposited, because of the mixture of the hazardous materials.

Also, the humidity of the waste and the rainwater percolating through it, generates landfill leachate. When the leachate moves, it can cause groundwater pollution.

Lack of waste collection causes severe threats

One of the main consequences of the Syrian war has been the total collapse of the waste management system. Currently it can be estimated that the waste collection and processing is barely taking place.
The failure to collect and properly dispose waste can lead to serious air, soil and water contamination – and with that, health hazards.
On top of this, uncontrolled waste burning releases smoke, soot and contaminants such as dioxins and furans. Ash and dust from the landfill surface and gas emissions from the decay of waste – such as methane and carbon dioxide – can cause air pollution.
There is constant issue of landfills in Syria.
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

A landfill with solid waste at Qamishili in north east Syria. Absence of proper waste management resulted in expanding waste dumps that risks polluting groundwater. Photo by Wim Zwijnenburg, November 23, 2018 .

“Cities like Qamishli, Derik and others generate tons of waste every day. But they don’t have a way to separate the waste. There are a few waste dumping sites in those areas where waste gets left. There’s no way to professionalize the process and create infrastructure because of the blockades. This is already posing risks to the local groundwater, according to local authorities”, Zwijnenburg says.

Munitions residues can lead to unpredicted environmental and health hazards

The fighting in Syria is continuing now for the ninth consecutive year. This has most likely resulted in areas of contamination with heavy metals and toxic munitions constituents. Civilians who have stayed, or are returning to these areas may be at risk of mixed exposures to munitions residues and pulverized building materials.

Munitions have several toxic substances in them. Intense fighting in urban areas has most likely involved the use of a variety of small and medium caliber munitions, explosives from mortars, artillery rounds, bombs, RPGs, and surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles.

Low-order detonations (not fully detonated bombs), can cause leaking of explosives such as cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX), dinitrotolulene (DNT) and trinitrotolulene (TNT), which contaminate soil, surface water and groundwater
Most explosive compounds can stay in the environment for an extensive period of time, particularly nitrocellulose (NC). Sunlight or microbial action can transform TNT into compounds more toxic than found in its original form.

The majority of the particulate explosives are not very mobile in the environment, and absorbed materials offer a continuous source of groundwater contamination.

It has been proven that many of the heavy metals, energetic compounds, and some of their decomposition products – such as DNT and amino-DNT that have been used in the Syrian conflict – are carcinogenic, genotoxic or mutagenic.

It is uncertain, what kind of health effects the exposure to the residues of munitions and explosives will have. According to PAX the long-term heath and environmental concerns are low on the list of priorities for the rebel fighters involved in the production of makeshift weapons since these processes are undertaken without the necessary safety precautions that are needed in order to prevent contamination.

Bomb manufacturing and rockets require different kinds of hazardous substances and these generate hazardous waste streams.


In Syria, there are the hotspots of environmental pollution. These hotspots are likely to occur in and around industrial facilities, critical infrastructure and military bases that have been attacked.
Publicly available information on the types of industry in different parts of Syria, and estimating if fighting had occurred at these sites has helped researchers in identifying the environmental hazards which might be present on and near these hotspots.
The level of concern is high regarding the environmental threats at industrial sites around Aleppo – especially at Sheik-Najjar and the heavy industrial facilities nearby – as well as the west around Aleppo airport and the south.
Leaving aside the direct environmental consequences of war, the footprint of the refugee camps is also extensive – and it adds to the exhaustion and pollution of natural resources such as ground and surface waters, air quality and ecosystems.
The refugee camps have also created waste management problems.
UNDP and the Lebanese Ministry of Environment have already assessed some of these concerns in Lebanon. Similar situations are most likely to occur in other refugee camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan.Camp settlements can also directly affect natural resources such as wood, lands and water.
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

Children at Refugee camp near the village outside Aleppo city in Syria in December 2016. Photo by Din Mohd Yaman / Shutterstock.com

Deforestation is also a real issue. It causes potential landslides, soil erosion and flooding, loss of habitat, and aggravated climate change effects, which have been noted in other humanitarian crises

“Deforestation is a major issue for example in Idlib. Large areas of forests have disappeared because people needed firewood for energy or because of shelling or because of charcoal production”, Zwijnenburg confirms.

An estimated 64 700 acres of forests are burned each year by forcibly displaced families living in camps. In Syria, refugees have been collecting firewood for energy sources, and this has been a specific problem in Idliband Latakia.

Approximately 90% of displaced people lack access to energy, which causes multiple problems. Even local armed groups issued statements in 2017 against cutting down trees, after deforestation started taking its toll on Idlib’s landscape.

“Environmental impacts are overlooked and understudied. They could have direct long-term consequences on Syria after the conflict. It’s important that the environmental impacts are taken into account in the humanitarian response and reconstruction work. This can help to identify priorities and directly save lives and in the long term help communities”, Zwijnenburg reminds.

A Look In To The Future – What Can Be Learnt From Syrian Conflict And How To Rebuild Keeping Environment In Mind​

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

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. 

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment

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.  

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

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.


crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

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 / Shutterstock.com

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.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

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.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

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 / Shutterstock.com

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.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment

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.