Perspectives 9 - Bitter Tales from the Crescent Conflict, Pollution, and Climate Challenges for War-Torn Syria

Attack on the Mhardeh Power Plant in Syria Source
Teaser Image Caption
Attack on the Mhardeh Power Plant in Syria Source

“In a few decades, the relationship between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.”


Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmental and political activist.



The effects from damage done to the environment and natural resources during times of war and armed conflict continue far beyond the period of conflict itself. Such effects are passed on to future generations and may extend beyond the borders of the country impacted. Armed conflict has the potential to reverse years of development and destroy livelihoods.”


UNEP, International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment by War and Armed Conflict, 2015




Dealing with both climate change impacts and conflict related pollution will pose serious challenges to humanitarian responses and socio-economic reconstruction in Syria as soon as the guns fall silent. Against this backcloth this article will explore a number of key issues: the link between environmental change, conflict and natural resources from the perspectives of the scientific community and humanitarian practitioners; the role of these interrelated phenomenon in Syria; and the stepping stones that can be implemented in a post-conflict Syria in order to minimize civilian harm and limit environmental damage.

Although this exploration will be necessarily limited and preliminary - as it is hard to predict how the political constellation and governance structures of the country will look at the end of the conflict - it is worth perusing, in order to engage with a number pressing issues that are likely to arise, and to contemplate the lessons that can be learned from previous conflicts. This may enable us to meaningfully prepare for the time when reconstruction efforts must take place and to mitigate the inevitable humanitarian and environmental harm that will have been done.               

Since the outbreak of the uprising against Assad in 2011, violent repression of largely peaceful protest has lead the country into a bloody conflict, turning cities into rubble and leaving a trail of destruction and chaos. Not only has the conflict led to huge direct humanitarian costs, killings hundreds of thousands of civilians, and wounding many more, the long-term environment impact will inevitably echo into the future. While there are a plethora of reasons why this revolution escalated into an all-out civil war, environmental factors have likely contributed to the growing social unrest. Data shows that the severe drought that has hit Syria over the last decade could have been one of the risk multipliers prior to the outbreak the conflict. The drought led to increased desertification in rural areas, leading to increasingly rapid urbanisation processes as people moved away from the countryside, and rising bread prices due to failed harvests and water scarcity. Moreover, weak environmental governance due to mismanagement prior to the conflict, combined with rapid industrialization, population growth and the intensification of agriculture lead to a further deterioration of the situation. This negatively affected both public health and economic productivity.[1] Yet with the conflict still raging, and creating more environmental damage, what will this legacy of degradation and pollution entail for Syria’s future, and opportunities for building peace ? What role can the international community and civil society play in rebuilding a sustainable future for Syria?




With the growth of industrialization and urbanisation, the wars and conflicts fought in the last century have increasingly resulted in long-term environmental hotspots and subsequent public health threats. They have caused wide scale destruction to natural resources, increased pollution and lead to the collapse of government capacities to regulate industrial production processes. Regrettably, the link between conflicts and their environmental footprint has been shunned in the wider debate over conflict impacts. Only the most ‘photogenic’ impacts such as the oil fires in Kuwait and Iraq could count on press coverage or immediate responses from governments and international agencies. The environment has traditionally been viewed as a ‘soft’ side of conflict impacts and therefore not considered, in some cases understandably, as a priority in humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts.

Historic examples of conflict pollution related health problems are abundant. From the mothers and children in Vietnam affected by toxic dioxin after the US use of Agent Orange to the burning oil wells in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991. Environmental related health problems are often overlooked in conflict settings and war-torn societies, as their effects are not always acute and may take time to become fully manifest. Many Iraqi families are still concerned about how the war will impact on their health, their concern is well founded as the level of pollution related cancers and birth-defects in Iraq are above pre-conflict levels. These are caused by a range of conflict related factors including burn pits near populated areas releasing toxic fumes that affect soldiers and civilians alike[2], past attacks on industrial sites creating local soil and water pollution, or the use of depleted uranium munitions.[3]

A less visible, yet important aspect of environmental destruction is the enormous financial and economic pressure it puts on a country’s rebuilding process. Iraq is a notable example in the Middle East, as its industrial sector, including critical infrastructure, was heavily targeted in both the 1991 and 2003 wars. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Environment and the United Nations Environments Program (UNEP) joint strategy published in 2013, rebuilding a sound environmental control system has taken years and there is still work in progress to address numerous environmental concerns.[4] Similar problems have occurred in Lebanon and Gaza, where the clean-up of conflict related pollution was put on the backburner due to limited government capacity, expertise, and other competing priorities. According to critics, structural adjustment programs and neo-liberal reconstruction efforts resulted in the rebuilding of heavy industrial sites, which aimed to boost the economy, but lead to worsening environmental degradation and over exploitation of natural resources.[5] These shortcomings in past reconstruction efforts raise the question of whether there should be a larger role for the environment built into response mechanisms to ensure that these toxic legacies are addressed and dealt with in a timelier manner.

However, over the last twenty years, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has stepped up their work on post-conflict environmental assessments (PCEAs) in war-torn regions and countries such as the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Ukraine and Sierra Leone.[6] Their work has highlighted the magnitude of the environmental impacts of conflict, and the pressures it puts on governments in their socio-economic reconstruction efforts due to limited financial capacities and lack of relevant expertise. Moreover, their work underlined the important link between conflict related environmental damage and public health problems. Along with conducting PCEAs the focus of UNEP’s work, was to assess the link between conflict over natural resources and peace-building activities, this was undertaken in cooperation with environmental law experts, academics and non-governmental organisations.[7]  They identified natural resources as one of the main conflict drivers in 18 conflicts since 1978.[8] The outcome of the various research reports published by UNEP have underlined the importance of taking into account the environmental dimensions of conflicts themselves and post-conflict reconstruction efforts, as they are central to both constructive peace-building efforts and the removal of potential future drivers of conflict.[9]


Climate Change, Natural Resources and Conflict in Syria


There is a growing body of literature that highlights the impact of climate change as a driver of conflicts.[10] Though the jury is still out on what the dynamics are between climate change, environmental changes and the increase of conflicts[11], it is possible that droughts and sub sequential degradation of agricultural lands, water shortages and an increase in urbanization could be ‘threat multipliers’ that fuel existing political and societal tensions.

 Before the war, Syria was hit by likely the worst drought in 900 years.[12] Over 1.5 million people moved to the cities as the environmental conditions in agricultural areas worsened due to natural water scarcity and desertification. These conditions were exasperated by weak governance, due to corruption and institutional incompetence, resulting in the Syrian state’s failure to live up to international environmental standards. The situation in Syria was already bleak prior to the conflict with the country facing numerous environmental problems. Air pollution in urban areas had increased due to significant industrial emissions, an old transportation fleet and low fuel quality; agricultural lands were negatively affected by agrochemicals, soil erosion and overgrazing by livestock along with heavy pollution from industrial sources; drinking water was polluted due to weak waste management systems, and limited investment had led to a failure to adequately tackle the problem. Although in theory the Syrian government had an adequate institutional set up in place, it was often unable to attract the highly qualified experts needed to cope with these growing environmental problems. [13] Syria was a middle income country with a functioning government, nevertheless, the undemocratic nature of the governance system resulted in terrible mismanagement of the country’s growing environmental challenges, thereby failing to fulfil the needs of their own people. In sum, the environmental prospects for Syria before the conflict were bleak and the country already had an urgent need to address a range of problems related to pollution and its dire impact on public health. These existing conditions did not bode well for the country’s future.



Conflict related environmental damage


When the Assad regime started to use heavy weapons to repress the initially peaceful revolution, their change of tactics soon began to bear a toll beyond the direct humanitarian consequences. As noted in the introduction, it did not take long for the conflict to exacerbate existing environmental problems and cause the existing governance structures to collapse. Cities such as Homs, Hama, Deir az Zor, Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus were faced with piles of household, medical and industrial waste. In the last two years the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has set up a number of emergency response waste collection systems.[14] However, despite this many towns and cities still lack the functional capacity to adequately collect and store a range of waste products - this has been identified as a priority area for UN response programs.[15]

                The targeting of industrial areas such as cement factories and industrial zones in and around Aleppo, oil refineries and pipelines near Homs, and the oil rich province of Deir az Zor by all the warring parties has created intensified pollution hotspots. These are likely to have been worsened when the US led anti-Islamic State Coalition and Russian air strikes targeted key oil installations in Eastern Syria.[16] Initially, the US stated that environmental and long term socio-economic concerns deterred them from a full out attack on Islamic State.[17] Their position changed in 2015 when Coalition forces started targeting refineries and oil transports, meanwhile the Russian Air Force have not held back at all, and have carpet bombed large oil storage sites and separation plants.

Attacks on industrial infrastructures, including oil facilities, have been commonplace in armed conflict: retreating Iraqi forces set fire to close to 700 Kuwaiti oil wells during the 1991 Gulf War;[18] NATO forces targeted oil refineries and oil depots in Pančevo[19] and the Novi Sad oil refinery[20] in Serbia during the Balkan war in 1999; Israel struck storage tanks for a thermal power station in Lebanon in 2006,[21] and Russian forces have bombed oil wells in Chechnya.[22] In all of those cases, military strikes caused air and soil contamination that added to existing legacies of pollution, making the post-conflict road to recovery and stability even longer.

Along with this direct targeting of the oil sector in Syria, the destruction of professional refineries and lack of oversight has led to an increase in civilian operated, make-shift, oil refineries in eastern Syria. The absence of any meaningful regulatory system puts civilians at great risk of exposure to hazardous substances, and disturbing reports coming out of the area note an increase in health problems and local environmental contamination.[23] Not only could these practices result in acute and chronic health problems and environmental degradation, the destruction of industrial sites and natural resources could also have a profound impact on any future economic recovery, as Syria’s economy was largely built on gas and oil production and a strong pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector. Those sectors are now laid to waste. If the impact of conflict and related environmental damage on Iraq, the Balkans and Lebanon can provide a guide to the future, then Syria will face an enormous challenge in dealing with the toxic legacy of the war. This will be a challenge not only for Syria itself, but also for neighbouring countries, where millions of refugees already put severe demands on the local environment and pose numerous challenges for these countries to deal with.[24]

 In October 2015, the Dutch peace organisation PAX published its desktop study Amidst the debris[25], which outlined the impact of the conflict in Syria on public health and the environment. The study identified four main areas of concern. Firstly, the collapse of environmental governance has resulted in huge waste management problems, for example household waste is piling up in the streets, leading to outbreaks of communicable diseases and waste dumps are further polluting soil and water resources. Secondly, with over 40 % of all cities being heavily damaged, millions of tons of rubble are piling up. Some of this rubble contains not only a mix of hazardous substances such as asbestos, heavy metals and industrial waste products, but also unexploded ordnance (UXOs), and as such poses a significant health risk to civilians and workers. Thirdly, following attacks on industrial sites, critical (energy) infrastructure and oil facilities are likely to have left a toxic footprint behind, due to the release of hazardous substances such as PCBs, oil products and pesticides - these directly impact public health and poison the environment through contaminating ground and surface waters and agricultural sites. Lastly, the intense use of a range of weapons has led to accumulations of munitions and military scrap around the country which could lead to localized pollution and exposure risks for civilians - many munitions contain toxic chemicals such as heavy metals and other carcinogenic materials.


How Do Environmental Hazards Impact Public Health? <Case study>


The short and long-term public health consequences of conflict related environmental pollution are not always directly visible, and therefore often underreported. Not all effects are photogenic, especially when it is about pollution of waterways, soil or the arid, dusty environment people in the region often live and work in. Acute health effects are visible when civilians come in contact with hazardous substances, for example children working in one of the hundreds of make-shift oil refineries on the outskirts of Deir az Zor (photo VICE), or when heavy industrial sites are hit and those first on the scene can be exposed to toxic materials. Chronic environmental and health risk will develop over time when civilians are exposed to a frequent doses of toxic substances, such as heavy metals or pesticides in drinking water, inhalation of asbestos, carcinogenic explosive residues and other airborne hazardous materials from conflict rubble, and hazardous materials in military scrap metal such as PCBs. Most notable are cities like Homs and Aleppo which have witnessed the destruction of over 50 % of their residential areas. In Homs, a large munitions storage site exploded in 2013, resulting in widespread contamination by explosive residues and heavy metals. Rebel groups have also targeted oil pipelines and the Homs oil refinery, causing massive fires and toxic smoke plumes. <photo smoke> Additionally, the looting of industrial sites has put civilians at risk of being exposed to hazardous chemicals and other toxic materials, and waste products stored and processed at these sites, as was the case in Iraq after 2003.[26]

Apart from the risk of communicable diseases that arise in the absence of a waste collection system,[27] large stretches of land have become contaminated as they are used as unregulated dump sites for household, medical and industrial waste. These toxic waste products seep into the ground water causing long-term risks to drinking water supplies, cattle or agriculture. The impact of this environmental footprint has not been limited to Syria, with the huge numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries already having a severe impact on local water resources in neighbouring countries. [28]

                In past conflicts, there have also been concerns among civilians over the potential health risks of hazardous substances released into their environments, as was demonstrated by the UNEP post-conflict environmental assessment in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq. As these pollutants are often invisible, they add an additional degree of uncertainty to the psycho-social impact of the conflict.

                Widespread pollution scattered with environmental hotspots will pose a serious problem for public health and a serious obstacle to socio economic development in post-conflict Syria. Hence, timely identification, monitoring and mapping of sites of concern should be undertaken to alleviate the work that will be needed by those in charge of rebuilding the country, if they are to minimize the risk to the civilian population and the environment they live in.



Anticipating Environmental Consequences


To address concerns over the public health effects of these toxic remnants of war on both the local population and aid workers, swift identification and monitoring mechanisms should be put in place. Traditionally, the UNEP would undertake PCEAs if requested by the relevant government, and if financial donor support was provided. This however immediately underlines the limitations of their work, as in some cases it was long after the conflict had ended that these surveys were conducted, and in limited scale due to scarce financial resources. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that their recommendations would be implemented. Therefore, there is an urgent need to start identifying and monitoring potential areas of interest where environmental hotspots may occur, as this information is crucial for local authorities, first responders, aid organisations and local communities in the event of acute risks to health and long-term environmental damage.

Despite the difficulties and limitations of accessing conflict areas due to security concerns, there are a number of opportunities through which data can be remotely collected. The UN’s operational satellite applications programme UNOSAT provides frequent damage assessment[29] of cities and specific sites which provides a clear overview of the scale of destruction and the affected areas. Social media is also a rich source of information that helps to identify potential targets which may leave a particularly toxic footprint such attacks on power plants or cement factories.[30]

Learning from the environmental impact of past conflicts can inform the design of faster and more efficient response mechanisms for affected states and humanitarian organisations. Several approaches are already being explored by environmental experts and UN organisations. This includes the UNEP/OCHA Joint Environmental Unit’s work to mainstream the environment in humanitarian action[31] and their provision of a help-desk where organisations in need of expertise can seek technical support and information. A rich set of tools and procedures for environmental assessment and recovery already exist, though these approaches are all too often fragmented or ill-coordinated.[32] Establishing a structured set of tools, clear responsibilities, financial resources and a coordinating system could help to minimise civilian harm from environmental risks, provide a fast and efficient response mechanism for environmental damage and ensure that the environment is fully integrated into recovery plans. Above all, there is a need for recognition by states and the wider international community that environmental security issues, whether from climate change or conflict related environmental pollution, are key in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Such a recognition would bolster the need to increase environmental expertise and related funding opportunities in rebuilding previously war-torn societies.


 Environment and Economy in Post-Conflict Settings


With peace talks underway in Geneva, timely considerations of how environmental recovery can best be integrated into the rebuilding of Syria is a key factor in any hope of a sustainable future. It is estimated that the conflict has cost Syria US $1.2 trillion.[33] More than half of all residential areas have been destroyed, while the industrial sector and critical infrastructure have both been severely damaged. The private and industrial sectors and other relevant actors from the Syrian business community are key stakeholders in the recovery process as they possess a wealth of knowledge of existing industries that could help identify priority areas for intervention.[34] They will also be crucial partners in any efforts to ‘build back better and greener’ - promoting more environmentally sustainable solutions after the conflict has ended.[35]

Discussion in various UN forums such as the World Humanitarian Summit, taking place in May 2016 in Istanbul, and the UN Environmental Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in May 2016 in Nairobi, could provide useful guidance in this regard. The impact of the conflict and rebuilding priorities touches upon almost each of the SDGs set for 2020.[36] The reconstruction of war-torn Syria could provide a unique opportunity to limit the environmental footprints, both of the pre-existing pollution problems and conflict related environmental damage. This could be achieved by implementing novel approaches to post-conflict recovery mechanisms that include the environment as a key component in the recovery. This would entail an inclusive, participatory process involving civil society actors, local authorities, environmental experts and international organisations to ensure a comprehensive approach - and to rebuild a Syria with new hope and opportunity for all.


[1]European Commission: Delegation Damascus (2009) Country Environmental Profile for the Syrian Arab Republic. Max Kasparek & Marwan Dimashki. Agreco Consortium. Final Report. Brussels. Accessed at:…

[2] Walker, L. (2016) US military burn pits built on chemical weapons facilities tied to soldiers' illness. The Guardian. Accessed at…

[3] Weir, D. (2016) ‘The Most Toxic War’in History’ -25 Years Later. Sustainable Security. Accessed at…

[4] Zwijnenburg, W. (2015) Iraq’s Continuing Struggle with Conflict Pollution. Insight in Conflict. Accessed at…

[5] Conca, K. & Wallace, J. (2012) Environment and Peacebuilding in war-torn societies: Lessons from the UN Environment Programme’s experience with post-conflict assessment. In: Assessing and Restoring Natural Resources in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, ed. D.Jensen and S.Longergan. London: Earthscan.

[6] UNEP Disasters and Conflict Publications. Accessed at…

[7] Environmental peacebuilding integrates natural resource management in conflict prevention, mitigation, resolution, and recovery to build resilience in communities affected by conflict. This initiative is a collaborative effort of the Environmental Law Institute, the United Nations Environment Programme, McGill University and the University of Tokyo. See

[8] UNEP (2009) From Conflict to Peacebuilding – the Role of Natural Resources and the Environment. Accessed at

[9] Conca, K. & Wallace, J. (2012) Environment and Peacebuilding in war-torn societies: Lessons from the UN Environment Programme’s experience with post-conflict assessment. In: Assessing and Restoring Natural Resources in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, ed. D.Jensen and S.Longergan. London: Earthscan.

[11]Westervelt, A. (2015) Does climate change really cause conflict? The Guardian. Accessed at; Garson, P. (20-15) Climate change and conflict: it’s complicated. IRIN News. Accessed at

[12] Stokes, E. (2016) The Drought That Preceded Syria's Civil War Was Likely the Worst in 900 Years. VICE News. Accessed at…

[13]European Commission: Delegation Damascus (2009). Country Environmental Profile for the Syrian Arab Republic. Max Kasparek & Marwan Dimashki. Agreco consortium. Final Report. Brussels. Accessed at:…


[14]UNDP (2015) Emergency employment yields a healthier environment for Syrians. Accessed at…

[15]UNDP (2016) UNDP outlines 2016 plans for Syria crisis response. Accessed…

[16] Zwijnenburg, W. & Waleij, A. (2016) Fire and Oil: The Collateral Environmental Damage of Airstrikes on ISIS Oil Facilities. Accessed at…

[17] Richardson, B. (2015) Ex-CIA chief: Fear for environment stays US hand on ISIS oil Wells. The Hill. Accessed at…

[18] See NASA’s overview on the Kuwait oil fires: Smoke from a distant fire. Accessed at

[20] UNEP (1999)Complementary measures to assess the environmental impacts of the conflicts to the Danube. UNEP/UNCHS Balkans Task Force Danube Mission Report. Accessed at

[21] UNEP (2007) Lebanon: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment. Accessed at…

[22] Ingwold, C. (2002) Chechnya Conflict and Environmental Implications. ICE Case Studies 
Number 93, June, 2002. Accessed at

[23] Hamlo, K. (2016) Syria’s war impacts environment. The Arab Weekly. Accessed at; VICE (2014) Black-Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel Held Syria. Accessed at

[24] See for example: Ministry of Environment (2014) Lebanon Environmental Assessment of the Syrian Conflict & Priority Interventions. September 2014. Accessed at…

[25] PAX (2015) Amidst the debris: Environmental impact of conflict in Syria could be disastrous. Accessed at…

[26] UNEP (2005) Assessment of  Environmental  “Hotspots” in Iraq.  Accessed at

[27] IRIN News (2013) Clearing rubbish in Syria: A life-saving - and life-threatening – job. Accessed at…

[28] See footnote 25

[30]Zwijnenburg, W. (2015) Online Identification of Conflict Related Environmental Damage. Accessed at…

[31] Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (2014) Environment and Humanitarian Action. Increasing Effectiveness, Sustainability and Accountability. Accessed at…

[32] Wilson Centre (2014) Environmental Dimensions of Sustainable Recovery: Learning From Post-Conflict & Disaster Response- Accessed at…


[33] World Vision (2016) The Cost of Conflict for Children. Five Years of the Syrian Crises. Accessed at

[34] Syrian Economic Forum (2016) Syrian businesspeople Map – “Part II”. Accessed at

[35] Ironically, one unintended ‘tragic positive’ side-effect of the war has been  a sharp decrease in air pollution in the Middle East as less fossil fuels were burned. See Howard, E. (2015) Middle East conflict 'drastically altered' air pollution levels in region – study. The Guardian. Accessed at…

[36] Weir, D. (2016) Armed conflict, environmental protection and the Sustainable Development Goals – Accessed at…