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Syrian Arab Republic

Fact Box

The Syrian conflict is approaching its 10th consecutive year. Social and economic factors caused by environmental conditions and political decisions led to antigovernment protests that broke out first in the southern province of Dar’a in March 2011.

According to an UN estimate (April 2016), the death toll among Syrian Government forces, opposition forces, and civilians was over 400 000. Other estimates placed the number well over 500 000. As of December 2018, approximately 6.2 million Syrians were internally displaced. Approximately 13 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance across the country and an additional 5.7 million Syrians were registered refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa. 

The conflict in Syria remains one of the largest humanitarian crises worldwide that has had, and keeps having major consequences on the environment both inside Syria and its neighboring countries. 

Government type: Presidential republic; highly authoritarian regime
Capital: Damascus
Population: 19,454,263 (July 2017 est.) (July 2018 est.)
Land area: 187,437 sq. km 
GDP (real growth rate): -36.5% (2014 est.)
Population below poverty line: 82.5% (2014 est.)
Ethnic groups: Arab ~50%, Alawite ~15%, Kurd ~10%, Levantine ~10%, other ~15% (includes Druze, Ismaili, Imami, Nusairi, Assyrian, Turkoman, Armenian)
Religion: Muslim 87% (official; includes Sunni 74% and Alawi, Ismaili, and Shia 13%), Christian 10% (includes Orthodox, Uniate, and Nestorian), Druze 3%, Jewish (few remaining in Damascus and Aleppo)
Note:  the Christian population may be considerably smaller as a result of Christians fleeing the country during the ongoing civil war
Population distribution: Significant population density along the Mediterranean coast; larger concentrations found in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo (the country’s largest city), and Hims (Homs); more than half of the population lives in the coastal plain, the province of Halab, and the Euphrates River valley
Note: the ongoing civil war has altered the population distribution
Refugees / IDPs: As of December 2018, approximately 6.2 million Syrians were internally displaced 




Challenges of Syria

The conflict in Syria remains one of the largest worldwide humanitarian crises.

According to a UN estimate in April 2016, the death toll among Syrian government forces, opposition forces and civilians was over 400 000. Other estimates placed the number well over 500 000. 

According to the WFP Situation Report from June 2019, approximately 6.2 million Syrians were internally displaced and an estimated 11.7 million people needed humanitarian assistance across the country. 

On top of this, as of June 2019 an additional 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees were dispersed across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Egypt.

The ongoing civil war has also caused 6.5 million people to be food insecure and 2.5 million people to be at risk of food insecurity.

The Syrian conflict has had severe negative consequences on the environment. Makeshift oil refineries, destroyed infrastructure and debris, collapsed waste collection systems and munitions residue have caused the most significant environmental consequences of the conflict.

In addition to a drought and depleted groundwater resources, the collapsed waste collection system partially destroyed water and wastewater infrastructure. This, added to continuously expanding refugee camps, have caused one of the most direct environmental consequences with an immediate negative impact on the people.

Safe drinking water, proper sanitation and waste management are a huge challenge in Syria. NGOs and aid organizations have largely taken the role of the state by providing the lacking services and a water supply, especially in the worst affected areas, such as refugee camps. 

Before the start of the conflict in 2009, nearly 96% of the population in Syria was served by piped water systems through municipal networks. These were centrally managed and provided safe water, as was required by national water quality standards. 

In addition, 82.4% of Syrians had access to improved sanitation services. Now, it’s estimated that up to 35% of the population relies on alternative, often unsafe water sources to meet their water supply needs. 

It is also estimated that 12.6 million people lack regular access to safe water and families are spending up to 15–20% of their incomes on securing access to water. 

Most wastewater treatment plants in Syria are now either non or partially functional. The sewage networks discharge untreated water into waterways or open land. Untreated or partially treated wastewater is used for irrigation. 

Due to extensive damage to infrastructure and a lack of spare parts for repairs,  there are regular cuts to electricity and water supplies. Eight years after the conflict began, rates of WASH-related diseases, such as acute watery diarrhoea, leishmaniosis and hepatitis, rose throughout the country. Furthermore, in areas lacking adequate water and sanitation facilities, the risk of an epidemic is high. 

In the first half of 2019, UNICEF enabled over 2.1 million people to get access to safe drinking water. 

Access to clean drinking water is one of the biggest challenges in the conflict areas. In northeastern Syria in May 2019, over 200 of more than 1100 communities estimated that the water from their primary source was not safe. More than 30 communities stated that the water made their people sick. 

Even though access to water provided by the city has increased in many areas, sewage water continues to be an issue. For example, in Raqqa it is reported that sewage water seeps into streets in several neighborhoods. 

In northeastern Syria, the primary method of garbage disposal was to bury or burn the trash (35%). These methods can have a severe negative impact on soil and air quality, especially if the sites are not adequately managed. Almost 10% of the garbage was reportedly left in streets or a public area. 

Even by December 2014, 1.3 million houses – or one-third of all residential sites – were destroyed in Syria.

The damage displaced millions of civilians and generated millions of tons of rubble, which could contain a variety of hazardous materials such as 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 not properly managed.

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. 

The TRW have been overshadowed by the immediate humanitarian crisis – even though they are largely connected, as the TRW can directly impact public health.

Makeshift oil refineries and their refining waste and sewage cause some of the most severe environmental hazards and potentially have a huge environmental health impact for the people who work on them. PAX, a Dutch NGO, has been able to identify over 330 clusters where makeshift oil refineries exist throughout Syria. 

Most of the refineries are located in Deir es Zour and Hasakah in eastern Syria. 

Heavy crude oil and its toxic constituents, such as heavy metals, make it a particularly problematic contaminant for soil, as well as surface water and groundwater resources.

Some of the other major environmental issues currently in Syria are deforestation, over-grazing, soil erosion, desertification.

The situation in Syria continues to escalate in certain areas. Airstrikes and shelling intensified in the northwestern region of Syria in April 2019. Almost 270 000 people were displaced from northern Hama and southern Idlib governorates in May 2019. Also, large areas of cropland were burned.