Amidst the Debris: The Environmental Impact of the Conflict in Syria

March 4th, 2016 - by admin

PAX for Peace – 2016-03-04 22:19:23

Amidst the Debris:
Environmental Impact of Conflict in Syria Could Be Disastrous


THE NETHERLANDS — The ongoing conflict in Syria is likely to have a disastrous impact on the environment and public health, according to a new study published by PAX.

Four years of fighting has left cities in rubble and caused widespread damage to industrial sites, critical infrastructure and the oil industry. Pollution from these forms of damage is likely to result in acute and chronic risks to civilians and will have a long-term impact on the environment that they depend on.

“With the additional attacks by Russia in or near Aleppo, which has numerous industrial complexes processing hazardous chemicals, existing environmental and public health risks from the ongoing conflict will only be compounded,” cautioned report author Wim Zwijnenburg, researcher for PAX.

Analysis of the fighting, which is based on satellite imagery, social media monitoring and the reports of UN agencies, has found that that there are already major problems around locations where hazardous chemicals are stored and processed. Industrial facilities such as chemical industries and the oil industry as well as critical infrastructure such as power plants and water and sewage systems have sustained severe damage.

The shelling of residential areas has caused the destruction of the majority of Syria’s housing stock. This has created millions of tonnes of rubble, some of which contains hazardous materials such as asbestos, heavy metals and the toxic residues from conventional weapons.

The breakdown of waste collection and management as a result of the conflict has led to the accumulation of solid household and industrial wastes, which has increased the spread of communicable diseases.

A Syrian man collects vegetables from a vegetable patch locals grew at the site where a barrel bomb hit a sewage pipe in the Baedeen neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 3rd, 2014.

Impact on Post-conflict Reconstruction
Building on research from previous conflicts in the region, such as those in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, and also from Ukraine, the study examines the impact that conflict pollution could have on post-conflict reconstruction. In doing so it calls for more detailed environmental monitoring, a more effective response mechanism and more sharing of environmental risk data with UN agencies and humanitarian organisations already active in Syria.

Zwijnenburg said: “Syria had invested heavily in expanding its industrial base prior to the conflict, yet many of these facilities, as well as other critical infrastructure have been heavily damaged. This can result in direct exposure to pollutants for civilians living nearby or returning later, and local contamination of soil and groundwater. However, monitoring of these sites and assessing their potential humanitarian and environmental impact has received little to no priority thus far.”

Severe Indirect Consequences
The fighting also led to severe indirect consequences such as the collapse of environmental governance, resulting in the accumulation of household, medical and industrial waste and the outbreak of communicable diseases. Ensuing waste burning and waste dumping could pollute groundwater sources. Civilians in the oil-rich areas started makeshift oil refineries, exposing them to hazardous substances that under peace-time circumstances are heavily regulated.

Advice: Include Environmental Threats in Ongoing Work
PAX, as part of the recently launched Toxic Remnant of War Network, urges states and international organisations to include these environmental threats in their ongoing work in the region and calls for more coordinated data sharing in order to support faster and more effective response mechanisms.

Protecting civilians and the environment they live would require more scrutiny, the report argues. And increased cooperation and funding for these activities is needed.

The Network asserts that protection for the environment during and after conflicts is a humanitarian issue but that legal protection is weak and that the civilian legacy of wartime environmental damage remains under addressed. The Network is calling for the international community to explore how protection could be increased and to improve systems of post-conflict environmental and humanitarian assistance.


While the conflict in Syria is unlikely to end soon, four years of fighting has already resulted in environmental degradation that is further deteriorating the already deplorable situation that civilians are living in. Environmental concerns do not have the highest priority among those organisations assessing the humanitarian consequences and providing direct aid and support to affected communities.

Yet this research highlights that there are a number of specific interventions that should get higher priority in post-conflict rebuilding plans. In other instances, more direct monitoring is required to support adequate response and remediation mechanisms that would be beneficial for communities in affected areas.

The widespread attacks, including the use of explosive weapons, on residential and industrial areas have turned neighbourhoods into rubble, and those unable to leave face the consequences of remaining in hazardous areas with limited assistance and information on the health and environmental risks.

Only time will tell which attacks on critical infrastructure such as power plants, and water purification and sewage systems not only resulted in direct environmental problems, but also blocked access to direct basic services for civilians, degrading public health. It is highly likely that with the current absence of governmental structures and capacity, these consequences will not be dealt with any time soon.

This research took a novel approach and assessed the possible toxic footprint of the constituents of conventional munitions and other military materials. This built on research from contamination of military firing ranges and limited research in previous conflicts (Balkan, Iraq). Its aim was to assess how the prolonged and intensive use of a wide range of munitions could create health and environmental risks for civilians.

Though cautious, the conclusion would be that further research is warranted, especially in heavily affected residential areas, where heavy metals and hazardous energetic residues could add to the complex polluted environment that civilians are exposed to.

This desktop analysis has identified four main areas where the environmental impact of the conflict in Syria will have immediate or long-term public health consequences.

1. The Targeting and Destruction of Industrial Facilities and Critical Infrastructure
“Hotspots” of environmental pollution are likely to occur in and around attacked industrial facilities, critical infrastructure and military bases. Based on publically available information on the types of industry, and if fighting had occurred at these sites, it is possible to identify a range of environmental likely to be present on and near these hotspots.

There are particular concerns over environmental threats at industrial sites around Aleppo, in particular at Sheik-Najjar and the heavy industrial facilities nearby, as well as the west around Aleppo airport and the south.

Other environmental hotspots are likely at some damaged factories south of Homs, near Homs oil refinery and at heavy industrial facilities in Adra, near Damascus.

The severity of contamination will depend on the quantity and type of chemicals present, the damage sustained by facilities and any mitigation measures attempted by facility staff. Acute health risks may have occurred where looting has taken place, while long-term health and environmental threats will depend on the extent of releases into local waters, soils and air.

Contamination caused by the conflict and damage to facilities may be overlain on pre-existing contamination. Artisanal oil production and processing, which has expanded as a result of the bombing of oil facilities in Deir ez-Zor, may be creating a number of intense localised hotspots.

Damage to electrical facilities may have resulted in the release of PCBs into the environment, while attacks on water treatment facilities and sewage systems have created public health risks by restricting access to clean drinking water and reducing the management of human wastes.

2. Heavy Damage to Residential Areas and Exposure to Hazardous Building Rubble
The widespread destruction of residential and light industrial areas in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir ez-Zor, Damascus and elsewhere has so far destroyed more than 30 percent of Syria’s housing stock. Huge quantities of pulverised building materials have been generated, containing a mixture of potentially toxic cement dust, household waste, medical waste, asbestos and other hazardous materials.

This is a huge waste stream that not only poses immediate long-term exposure risks for civilians living or returning to these areas but its appropriate management and disposal will present a huge environmental challenge in the longer-term. In the short-term, both emergency responders and workers processing rubble may face repeated exposures to hazards.

3. Contamination from Weapon Residues
The ongoing conflict has seen the deployment of a wide range of weapons by all parties. The use of massive quantities of munitions from North Africa, Europe, Russia and Asia, as well as DIY weapons is likely to have left an environmental footprint.

Based on historic peacetime and conflict precedents, this research has highlighted a number of concerns over the direct and long-term health effects from the residues of the intensive use of conventional munitions.

The sustained use of munitions in populated areas and attacks on arms storage areas may have led to the dispersion of environmentally significant quantities of metals and energetic materials. Further sources of contamination include military scrap metals and DIY munitions factories, both of which may have created short and long term exposure risks to workers and those living nearby.

4. Collapse of Environmental Services
Disruption to an already weak system of waste management provided by the Syrian government has led to an accumulation of municipal waste and to an increase in uncontrolled dumping and burning.

Uncontrolled dumping and burning of waste reduces the likelihood that household, medical and industrial wastes will be separated, creating immediate and long-term health and environmental risks. Failure to appropriately manage municipal wastes has led to an increase in communicable diseases.

The most pressing problem with waste collection emerged in Aleppo, and to a lesser extent, in and around populated areas near Damascus, where there was total collapse of waste management. More positively, and with UNDP support, cities such as Homs, have seen some recovery in waste management services.

The purpose of this report has been to identify types of environmental damage in the Syrian conflict that can have a direct impact on civilian health. As a desk study it has not sought to quantify those civilian health risks but instead to demonstrate that the fate of Syria’s environment during the conflict is inextricably linked to that of its human population. In doing so it underscores the necessity of further steps to better integrate environmental protection with the protection of civilians.


Following the conclusions of this report, a set of general recommendations can be made to states, international organisations and civil society in the broader discussion on conflict and the environment, aiming to improve environmental awareness in humanitarian action during and after conflicts.

In addition to these general recommendations, we provide a set of specific recommendations as a food for thought on a pro-active approach to deal with the environmental impact of the war in Syria.

General Recommendations on
Conflict and the Environment

Strengthen discourse and mandate on environment and conflict
The damage to Syria’s environment and the immediate and long-term risks that this damage may pose to Syria’s civilian population, clearly demonstrate that environmental protection during conflict is a humanitarian issue. Yet environmental damage during conflict suffers from low prioritisation throughout the UN system.

This is most clearly reflected in UNEP’s currently weak mandate on conflicts, and states should consider how the UN Environmental Assembly (UNEA), UNEP’s new universal governing body could be used to strengthen UNEP’s mandate in this field.

Increase cooperation between relevant actors
Civil society and a range of other humanitarian and military actors should be encouraged to play a greater and more coordinated role in recording and monitoring wartime environmental damage and the risks it poses to lives and livelihoods. This could be done by increased mainstreaming of environmental action, exchange of information and by funding research on the environmental impact of conflict.

Develop mechanisms of response and assistance
Complex conflicts involving state and non-state actors make determining strict liability and accountability for environmental damage and its humanitarian consequences challenging. Meanwhile the environment and its inhabitants remain unassisted. States and other actors should consider the example of Syria as part of the developing initiative aimed at strengthening protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict.

In doing so, states and civil society should consider how norms could be developed that help minimise damage and how new systems of response and assistance could improve the protection of the civilians and the environmental upon which they depend.

Improve legal measures to protect the environment
States debating how protection for the environment could be strengthened in relation to armed conflicts in the UN Sixth Committee should highlight how the principles and standards established in both International Environmental Law and Human Rights Law could be used to inform progress on the topic.

Specific Recommendations for Syria

Bearing these complex scenarios in mind, finding solutions to each of these scenarios would in theory be less complicated. To many of the above-described environmental and public health problems, solutions and responses have been devised in peacetime scenarios.

A large body of literature on risk assessment tools and fast responses have been devised for chemical incidents, hazard identification of toxics, disaster waste management and environmental health management in humanitarian operations. Naturally, conflict affected States often lack the necessary capacities, priority or expertise to handle these complex problems, if there is a state structure left at all.

Until a response plan is devised and capacity developed, be it by a new state or support is given, either by international expert or aid organisations, the following processes could be started for Syria:

Information collection
* Baseline studies establish a proper understanding of the potential risks in the specific conflict context. A mapping of industries, available ammunitions goes a long way to help assess potential and actually occurring environmental and public health problems throughout a conflict.

The usefulness of such baseline studies increases exponentially the more detailed the study is. For example, the assessment of potential risks involved in a particular industrial site increases if the data set includes the sort of potential toxic substances available on a site and their quantity, condition and potential for release into the environment.

* Organisations with access to the field could make use of known geo-spatial data of areas of operation to identify if there are direct public health consequences and/ or acute impacts for the communities they work with.

* Collect information from local communities for hazard identification of contamination hotspots such as industrial sites, critical infrastructure, pipelines and other oil related facilities. Map livelihoods, agricultural or livestock areas and water wells in the direct surrounding of the hotspot.

* Involve local communities in the assessment process through citizen science projects that helps collecting data at a central collection point and is assessed by experts. Feedback could be given back directly to affected communities.

* The establishment of an independent repository of such information would provide a big push for the development and mainstreaming of codes of conduct, tools and mitigation programs.

Risk assessment
* Once hotspots are identified, at random sampling could confirm presence of pollutants and contaminants in drinking water wells, surface soil, and food. This process will facilitate a better understanding of the levels of contamination and guide the level of intervention needed to prevent exposure of civilians.

* An environmental monitoring system could be set in place that would record environmental parameters in the most important areas (close to livelihoods, close to water wells, in agricultural areas, in ecological sensitive or important areas).

* Ongoing monitoring using satellite images will provide information on the level of destruction in both residential areas and industrial sites. It could provide information on downstream pollution in cases of severe chemical incidents and monitor changes in the landscape that could help identify environmental impacts.

* A set of indicators could be set in place that would measure environmental progress of the country, e.g. on waste management, access to safe/treated water, access to public health services, identification of polluted sites, air/soil/ water quality, etc.

Risk mitigation
* In areas where civilians and workers are working with conflict rubble and dusty environments, basic dust masks and gloves could be provided.

* Conflict rubble, scrap metal, old stockpiles, and remnants of munitions and weapons should be removed as soon as possible, in order to limit the dispersal of contaminants to the environment. Preferably, such hazardous waste should be safely stored into further destruction. As an emergency measure, use of special landfills with a good undercover layer could be used for controlled dumping until further measures are in place.

* Identified pollution hotspots should at least be closed for public access and preferably measures for an “emergency” remediation could be introduced such as a cover layer, prior to more sophisticated clean-up.

* Awareness raising among the general population around pollution hotspots e.g. not to drink from polluted wells or swim/eat fish from contaminated water, wash hands and food to reduce ingestion of polluted particles, don’t let children play with scrap metals.

Recommendations: Weapons-related Contamination

To protect civilians in post-conflict setting, the following recommendations could be used to scope priorities for assessment and identification of potential risks of munitions constituents and residues.

Bearing in mind that it remains unclear to what extent this would be a direct exposure risk, the findings of this report warrant that specific research on the impact of munitions and their constituents could provide more insight in the environmental footprint of conventional weapons.

* The identification of fighting hotspots would give a first indication were pollution hotspots could be found, containing the largest load of heavy metals and organic constituents of ammunitions and explosives.

Similarly, identifications of (DIY) manufacturing sites and munitions stockpiles could reveal potential contaminated sites. Such sites may be identified via warfare documentation (if available), aerial pictures, and information from locals e.g. anecdotal evidence.

* Collecting relevant data on water sources, shelling of specific areas, weapons collection and production points, anecdotal evidence from locals would be useful starting point.

* Around these pollution hotspots (<5 km from the site), the following areas should be mapped: (potential) agricultural fields, (potential) livestock areas, populated areas/livelihoods, water wells, and surface waters in use. If groundwater flows are known, downstream water wells in use should be mapped as well. * Lead (Pb) could potentially be used as an indicator compound for other metal and organic components, as it is one of the most present components in ammunitions together with mercury(Hg) , cobalt (Co), copper (Cu) and zinc (Zn). Furthermore, Pb is a relevant compound due to its toxic effects at relatively low concentrations.

Though lead contamination also occurs through gas emissions from vehicles, it could warrant further research. Whenever field measurements are possible, environmental sampling of surface soil at hotspots and water sampling of the identified wells around hotspots could confirm that certain sites are polluted and actions should be taken to protect public health.

PAX, PO Box 19318, 3501 DH Utrecht, The Netherlands

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