How local green activists are tackling the unfolding environmental crisis in northeast Syria
QAMISHLI, Syria: For thousands of years, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris has seen dozens of civilizations rise and fall – civilizations that depended on the rivers and surrounding lush geography to sustain themselves.
But now, after a decade of conflict and drought, the land between the rivers, and specifically northeast Syria, is a shell of what it once was.
The great rivers and their tributaries, once rich in clear water, have dried up to a trickle and are full of garbage and sewage. The rich soil that once supported all kinds of trees has dried up, and its forests have disappeared with it.
However, all hope is not lost. Small groups of environmentalists and volunteers are refusing to remain helpless in the face of the crisis and are working to re-green northeast Syria.
Planting four million trees in a country threatened by climate change, desertification and war may seem like a daunting task, but it’s a task that local environmental initiative Green Tress has taken on.
“We are in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, but that does not mean that we cannot do anything or that we are a helpless society. We can create initiatives and take responsibility in our society,” Ziwar Sheikho, the administrator of Green Tress, told Arab News at the initiative’s incubator in the city of Qamishli.
“Pollution has the potential to kill more people than bullets,” Sheikho said, bending down to check if any of the thousands of seeds he had planted had begun to sprout. “Everyone understands that the loss of the environment is the loss of humanity.”
The local initiative started in 2020, after the municipality of Tel Kocher built a series of cement palm trees along the town’s main road. Sheikho wrote a letter to the municipality and the local environmental council criticizing the construction and urging the city to adopt a more environmentally friendly approach. Eventually, the fake trees were removed and replaced with real ones.
Unsatisfied with a small victory, Sheikho knew he had to do more. Sheikho, a journalist by trade, accompanied by a local writer and a cinematographer, started thinking about how to make their home country a more eco-friendly place.
In addition to planting four million trees, Green Tress also aims to increase the percentage of green spaces in northern and eastern Syria to 18. Many once lush forests along the border in the north were destroyed during the crisis, when desperate locals were forced to cut trees for firewood as fuel sources ran out.
According to the US-based online monitoring tool Global Forest Watch, Syria has lost more than 26,000 hectares of forest cover since 2001.
The initiative has faced many challenges, the main one being the lack of support. “We are all volunteers. The land we use now was given to us. Our water tank was offered to us. Because we are an independent organization and not tied to any government, we have to get all our tools from donors,” Sheikho said.
Saudi Vision 2030, announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, has been a major inspiration for Green Tress, Sheikho said. The Saudi Green Initiative, which was launched in 2021 in line with Vision 2030 goals, has pledged to rehabilitate 40 million hectares of land and has already planted 8.4 million trees in the Kingdom.
“We have seen that many developments in the Middle East have proven to be environmentally destructive. For example, because of the 23 dams that Turkey has built on the Euphrates, 178 rivers, streams and springs that were previously in (northern Syria) have dried up. The Tigris and Euphrates are in bad shape because of this.
“Saudi Vision 2030 and the Saudi Green Initiative have changed our minds. It gave us a lot of hope. It aims to plant billions of trees in the Middle East. We launched our initiative at the same time as it was announced. We hope it will expand to many more countries,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s ambitions have of course extended beyond its own borders in the form of the Middle East Green Initiative, which aims to plant 50 billion trees in the region among other climate change mitigation initiatives. climate change.
For its part, Green Tress has thought beyond the simple planting of trees. The initiative runs workshops in villages in northeast Syria to teach locals the basics of composting to reduce reliance on harmful chemical fertilizers, which the agriculture department says is one of the main causes of desertification.
- 59 percent – Syrian land threatened by desertification.
- 26,000 hectares – Syrian forests lost since 2001.
- 34 million cubic meters – Groundwater pumped annually by Syrians.
When the Syrian regime controlled the northeast, it designated these areas as agricultural areas, especially for the production of cotton as well as wheat and other grains. Decades of repeated grain production have left much of the rich soil between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers vulnerable to desertification.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over-harvesting of the same crop coupled with water shortages leads to desertification in windy areas such as northeast Syria. The FAO’s 2022 report says Syrian wheat production this year has fallen to one million tonnes, 75% below pre-war levels, due to heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture after the crisis. collapse of irrigation systems and repeated water cuts and shortages.
According to the Department of Agriculture of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), studies have shown that desertification threatens at least 59% of the country’s agricultural land.
Water erosion due to overharvesting of trees, wind erosion due to lack of vegetation cover, and increased groundwater salinity due to lack of effective drainage systems have all contributed to rapid desertification. , an agriculture department spokesperson told Arab News.
In the wake of these policies, the AANES, which was established as an autonomous area in northern and eastern Syria, separated from both the regime and the opposition, created an ecological council to try to repair the damage caused by years of war and mismanagement.
“The work we do is not just for this region, but for the whole world. Our goal is the protection of the planet,” Berivan Omer, vice-chairman of the Jazira region ecology council of AANES, told Arab News.
The eco-council has successfully lobbied for the implementation of two laws over the past year – the Cleanliness Act and the Environmental Protection Act. The Hygiene Act prohibits littering in undesignated areas at undesignated times, littering and dumping waste in rivers, streams and springs.
It also prohibits industrial facilities from dumping their waste in random places and punishes those who cut down trees in public or private gardens without proper permits with a fine of up to 250,000 Syrian pounds (about $45).
The Jaghjagh River, a tributary of the Euphrates, was once clear and flowed swiftly through the city of Qamishli. Now it’s full of trash and trash, its irresistible stench spreading over several city blocks. Low water levels in all of Syria’s streams and rivers have contributed to the spread of diseases such as leishmaniasis and even cholera, which recently returned to the country and infected more than 15,000 people.
Although the local municipality, ecological council and volunteers have carried out several clean-up operations over the past few years, the river invariably returns to its previous state after a short time.
Many things are beyond the local government’s control, says Omer. Houses that dump their waste directly into the river were built on its banks decades ago, and short of evicting the residents, there don’t seem to be any easy solutions.
“For the river, we are doing research. We will do six months of research to figure out how to clean it properly,” he told Arab News. “We will try to see if the problem can be solved with a simple cleaning or if we have to divert the whole sewage system.
Other environmental problems abound in the region: A lack of advanced oil refineries has led to the use of primitive burners to produce fuel. Gaseous and liquid wastes from the fuel-making process find their way into the air, water and soil, leading to an increase in respiratory illnesses and cancer cases in the Jazira region, where more than 200 of these burners are working.
Although the eco-council has tried to promote the use of alternative energy sources such as solar power, the materials available to them are expensive and of poor quality. With the main power grid operating below capacity since the start of the war, much of northeast Syria depends on neighborhood generators, which are noisy and produce toxic fumes.
Omer and Sheikho believe the biggest change is in the mentality of the community.
“People here say, ‘If I clean my environment, I will only clean my house. Everything else is the responsibility of the state or the municipality,” Omer said.
Sheikho said Green Tress held meetings with the Democratic Islamic Community, a council of local Muslim religious leaders, asking them to include lessons on the benefits of environmental protection in their sermons.
The eco council has also run workshops among local village councils to teach people how to sort their waste for recycling.
“We have to start at the household level. It takes a lot of money, labor and special tools to separate the waste for recycling. But if it starts at home, it will be much easier,” Omer said.
“Before, people lived as part of nature, but now they are separated from it. They see themselves as the center of nature rather than just a component. As human beings on this planet, we can live in harmony with all living beings.