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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

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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.

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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.” 

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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.

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

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.