AMMAN — This month, fires raged across the Syrian coastal province of Latakia before spreading into southern Idlib and the Turkish province of Hatay, while Syrian and Turkish firefighters alike tried to beat back the blaze’s advance.

Though an almost annual occurrence in Syria’s northwest, this year’s wildfires were particularly intense, exacerbated by the scorching heatwave in the last two months. Latakia province experienced 580 fire alerts from June 1 to September 25, compared to 160 in the same period last year, according to data collected from NASA’s satellite tool, Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).

The true losses from the forest fires have yet to be counted, but at least 370 hectares of land have been burned in Latakia and Hama provinces, according to the specialist economic publication, “Syria Report.” 

Still, while devastating to the local environment and people who live near the fires, forest fires are not the only threat to Syria’s forest and vegetation cover. Gross mismanagement and negligence, as well as illegal logging, have also been large contributors to the degradation of Syria’s ecosystem over the last twenty years.

Between 2001-2019, Syria lost 20,681 hectares (206 km squared) of forest cover, nearly 20 percent of what the country’s total forest cover was in the year 2000, taking into account gains over the same period. 

The rate of loss appeared to sharply increase post-2011, when the Syrian revolution broke out. However, it is unclear how much of the increase is due to on-the-ground factors, and how much is due to changes in measurement methodologies, as the satellite analysis was performed with “an updated methodology” after 2011, according to the data source. This could also mean that the total loss over the two decade period could be higher than currently stated. 

The rate of forest cover loss, and its increase post-2011, cannot be explained by lower precipitation rates either. All of two of the post-2011 years experienced higher than average rainfall, which, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is 4,615 millimeters (mm) annually.

Comparing the two peaks of forest cover loss pre and post-revolution shows that rainfall did not correlate with forest loss. The amount of forest lost in 2012 was almost 250% higher than that of 2007, even though it rained twice the amount in 2012 as compared to 2007 (7,929 millimeters in 2012 compared to 4,163 in 2007).

What is driving the degradation of Syria’s ecosystem? 

Due to the unstable security environment and de facto political segmentation of Syria, there have been no country-wide, on-the-ground studies of Syria’s forests and soil qualities in the last decade. Thus, attempting to definitively understand the drivers of Syria’s environmental degradation is difficult, even for the most qualified of authorities. 

The most recent country-wide survey of Syria’s forests and vegetation was done via satellite and was released in March 2020. The study, which covered the period between 2000-2015 and was conducted by the UN and Syrian Ministry of Local Administration and Environment, revealed that the main drivers of land degradation were: illegal logging and burning, mismanagement of land and overgrazing, as well as the “pollution of land with liquid, solid wastes and … illegal oil refining,” and conversion of agricultural and forest lands into urban areas. 

These diverse factors can be traced back to a key problem: a lack of central authority able and willing to effectively regulate and manage Syria’s environment. 

Overgrazing, for example, illustrates how a lack of competent governing authority can contribute to the degradation of the local environment, even within the context of the seemingly innocuous phenomenon of livestock feeding.

The right side of the fence was a livestock grazing-exclusion zone maintained for 10 years in Palmyra, Homs Province. The left side was exposed to unregulated grazing, March 2008 (Gianluca Serra)

The right side of the fence was a livestock grazing-exclusion zone maintained for 10 years in Palmyra, Homs Province. The left side was unregulated, March 2008 (Gianluca Serra

Gianluca Serra, a former UN FAO employee and ecologist who worked on biodiversity conservation in Syria in the decade prior to the revolution, described how even pre-2011, liberalization schemes interrupted traditional forms of dividing up Syria’s steppe and led to vegetation loss and subsequent desertification in Syria. 

The vast steppe climate-zone of Syria covers more than half of the country’s territory. The steppe, generally referred to as the Badiya, has also been one of the most unstable parts of the country throughout the civil war, having been taken over by ISIS in 2015 and unable to rid itself of the group since. 

Though satellite data on forest cover loss cannot measure the decline in soil quality or the loss of smaller shrubs which dot the Badiya’s landscape, the UN 2020 study revealed that there was a 15 percent decrease in “shrubs and sparsely vegetated areas.” At the same time, there was a 75 percent increase in degraded arable land relative to levels in 2000, signifying a loss in land productivity and vegetation not confined to the Syrian Badiya. 

In the greener, more forested areas of Syria, mainly concentrated in the northwestern provinces of Idlib and Latakia and the northern province of Aleppo, a different sort of challenge exists to the environment. 

These areas have all seen illegal logging over the past decade, but are unable to be definitively measured due to security conditions and a lack of capacity. Syria Direct spoke with the Minister of Agriculture of the opposition-affiliated Syrian Interim Government, but he said that they have been unable to monitor the scale of illegal logging. 

The causes and mechanisms of illegal logging differ from one location to another. In Afrin, locals have often complained of Turkish-backed factions cutting down the area’s forests to sell as firewood and charcoal. 

In the regime-controlled Latakia province, where there are nature reserves and forest rangers with the nominal power to report and stop illegal logging, the cutting down and burning of trees seems to happen on an almost industrial scale. 

An investigation by Syria Untold illustrated the true extent of the problem, where competing gangs generate profit by chopping down swathes of trees in order to produce and sell charcoal. It is widely believed that these gangs have close ties to the regime and influential businessmen. 

In Idlib and parts of Aleppo, displacement is likely a large cause of illegal logging. In order to clear the way for the millions of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who fled to the northwest provinces, trees have been cleared and agricultural lands have been converted into makeshift camps. 

IDPs also cut down trees in order to provide heating for themselves, given the rising prices of fuel and the bitter cold which descends upon northern Syria for months at a time each winter. Last winter, an infant froze to death and a family asphyxiated in their tents after attempting to use coals to warm themselves. 

Little optimism going forward

The UN study estimated that in order to stop the country’s land degradation by 2030, Syria needs $360 million. However, even if the budgetary requirements were met, Syria’s endemic corruption and political fragmentation would prevent Damascus from being able to reverse or even pause the current trend of environmental decline. 

In the long term, if these trends continue, the effects will be far-reaching. Syria is already suffering from mass food insecurity and an inability to secure fuel for heating and cooking. With global warming worsening, winters will only grow colder and summers hotter. A degraded national ecosystem will mean the population will be hit harder than most by these climatic conditions. 

However, in the short term, the cost of Syria’s environmental destruction will be borne on the backs of Syria’s most vulnerable. The degraded soil quality and clearing of brush and forests will only worsen the annual mudslides which drown IDPs and carry away their tents. Those reliant on pastoral herding will find fewer plants to feed their livestock.

Still, to many Syrians, even the short term effects of deforestation and ecosystem degradation seem far off, as economic and physical needs force them to live day by day. Any hope for protecting the country’s environment will have to come after its people feel safe and secure. 

 

This version of the article reflects minor changes made on 30/09/2020 at 11:40 am.