Where black rivers flow

A looming environmental crisis unfolds in Syria, with makeshift oil refineries, crop fires, damaged water infrastructure and poor waste management.


Farmers in north east Syria struggled in June 2019 to control wide-spread crop fires that laid valuable wheat fields to ashes and seriously impacted food security.

These fires slowly encroached the oil fields and worsened an already rapidly deteriorating situation. For years, environmental issues have worsened in Syria, resulting in serious pollution and the breakdown of environmental governance.

These problems arise from a broken oil industry, the absence of proper waste management, damaged water infrastructure, and conflict. 


The curse of the black gold has wide purchase in the northern and eastern parts of Syria. Decades of oil extraction has provided local communities with jobs and income.

When the peaceful revolution against the Assad regime resulted in a all-out conflict, armed groups struggled for control over the oil fields and infrastructure. The oil ensures a continuous flow of money, and is coveted.

The ensuing fighting crippled the oil industry: a lack of skilled workers and a relentless air campaign by both the US-led Coalition and the Russian Air Force soon resulted in widespread destruction of the wells, pipelines trucks, pumping jacks and refineries in Deir ez Zor and Hasakah.

Local communities and armed groups resorted to dangerous coping strategies as: this part of Syria witnessed the rise of makeshift oil refining, a hazardous and polluting practice way which crude oil is heated in drums under open fires to initiate a distilling process for benzine and diesel.

Soon this practice spread like a cancer through the eastern part of the country, while later popping up in the western part of Syria, with major clusters of makeshift refineries in Idlib and Aleppo.   

Radical ecology

Prior to the war, Syria produced roughly 400,000 barrels of oil per day. Along with the Jazeera oil fields in Hasakah, this oil was an important source of revenue for the government.

The newly established Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria struggled with these refineries. Their political view has a strong radical ecology component, based on the views of communalist and basic-democracy ideology, such as that put forward by Murray Bookchin.

Though the Self-Administration disagrees with the heavily polluting and unhealthy professional and artisanal refining, it does not have the resources to avoid these practices. In fact, it needs the oil for income in order to govern the region.

Despite this conundrum, the administration felt forced to act, as civilians started to protest against these hazardous practices that severely damage the health of the workers, exposing them and nearby communities to the noxious fumes.

Pollution from the oil industry is affecting the soil and groundwater in the region as waste is flowing from the refineries in rivers and creeks. 

Artisanal refineries

As part of PAX’s work on the environmental dimensions of armed conflict, I travelled with a colleague to north east Syria in late 2018 to get a better understanding of the environmental dynamics that came in to play. We combined our field research with open-source investigations to map the scale of the problem.

Using satellite imagery, we mapped the clusters of artisanal refineries which reached their peak use in 2016. In the area currently controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, there have been at least 330 clusters of refineries, with some clusters counting/including over 1000 refineries.

Beginning in 2017, most of the sites in Hasakah were forced to shut down due to the new regulations imposed by the Self-Administration. Better regulations, however, did not solve the problem. 

What we found was an alarming situation that warrants rapid action to improve the lives and livelihoods of local communities. Key issues around environmental damage resulting from armed conflicts need to be addressed on an international level with the support of local initiatives.

Bleak picture

During our time in the Jazira region, we talked with local oil workers, nearby villagers, and local authorities. A bleak picture emerged from their stories: constrained by limited means of income, thousands of people, including many children, often worked at these sites.

We were told that one single refinery cluster run by people from local villages could provide income to 300 families.

Representatives from the Department of Municipalities in Qamishli, that are also responsible for environmental management tell us that they impose taxes on oil incomes derived from makeshift refineries, and - as a way of compensation - is used for reforestation in other areas in the Jazira region.

Their largest concerns were the waste water issues from oil and air pollution. The latter was the reason to shut down 80 percent of the artisanal refineries mid-2017. 

Yet still we come across operational artisanal refinery sites in small villages were young boys, covered in oil sooth, are cleaning dirty oil drums. The Self-Administration lacks the right equipment to rebuild the oil sector in a less-polluting way and is not capable of regulating the sites properly. 

Health impacts

The oil workers we met were often local farmers, while others were displaced Syrians seeking refuge from other parts of the country.

Mohammed, a 44-year-old worker, lives in a nearby village and has been working on the site for four years. There isn't any other work available for him. He also cares for five children.

The biggest risks, he explains, are the exploding refineries that have taken the lives of workers. Besides that risk, he tries to avoid exposure to the toxic fumes as much as possible.

While visiting various clusters of artisanal and semi-professional refineries in the area, the stories from each oil worker reflect a similar tone: driven by a lack of alternatives and accepting the health risk they struggle to make ends needs and provide income for their families 

Sadly, oil is not the only environmental issue that beats the drum. The processing of household, industrial and medical waste, for example, poses many hazards.

Waste management

Close to one of the 'oil rivers' flowing down from Ger Zero, a large oil facility nearby, littered with piles of waste we often came across shepherds herding their flocks. The sheep graze between the waste that is near the river, which illustrates the endemic problem with proper waste management.

The larger towns and cities generate tons of household, industrial and medical waste each day. It all needs to be collected, separated and safely stored, but processing facilities or waste management expertise is lacking in these conflict-affected areas, partly due to import restrictions.

Local authorities fear the waste leachate ends up contaminating the groundwater near dumpsites, as they have not been able to build safe landfills. In Qamishli alone, 50 tons of trash is collected daily and the nearby waste dump has now resorted to burning the waste.

Nearby communities started protesting, fearing health problems from air pollution, partners of PAX reported.  

Conflict damage also leads to issues with water. ISIS damaged the water infrastructure by destroying irrigation channels, water wells and pumping systems. This has already affecting agriculture and access to water for villages according to both local officials we talked to, and humanitarian needs assessments.

What’s next? 

With the renewed threat of a Turkish invasion, the situation will only get worse. The fragile environmental conditions and under-resourced governance is failing to address the pollution concerns arising from a barely functioning oil industry, damaged water infrastructure and a waste management system that's nearing collapse.

The crop fires which laid 1600 km2 of crop fields to ashes also had a devastating impact due to lack of firefighting equipment and access to water.

Restoring a democratic and effective government structure through local councils, one that can take care of its citizens and their environment, requires significant support from international donors. In particular European states and the EU should provide support, in terms of environmental expertise, capacity building of local staff and proper equipment.

The EU and other progressive states have built significant expertise and supported international political initiatives around the times of conflict and environment. Support should be given in line with UNEA resolution 2.15 and 3.1, which address protection of the environment in armed conflict and pollution resulting from armed conflicts.

Clean-up and restoration will be pivotal in providing farmers and local communities with perspective on rebuilding a sustainable future. This work would help to prevent worsening health and environmental impacts, but would also serve as a tool for building peace through cooperation and restoration. 

This Author 

Wim Zwijnenburg works for PAX, a Dutch NGO focussed on peace and conflict-prevention. He tweets @wammezz.

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