Climate-related issues have taken center stage globally with the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference, COP 28, currently being held in the UAE. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is among the 160 world leaders and heads of state who have received invitations to participate in the discussions in Dubai. However, his inclusion has sparked criticism from Syrians and human rights defenders, given the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, largely attributed to the Assad regime, and the abhorrent war crimes against civilians. Fortunately, the controversy surrounding the invitation, coupled with international arrest warrants issued by France due to his use of chemical weapons during the Syrian war, appears to have deterred his attendance.
Syria’s delegation will be led by its prime minister, with a stated primary focus on securing funding for climate projects in the war-ravaged country. However, the divided control of Syrian territories into three areas means stakeholders from non-regime-held areas, including Northeast Syria, this piece’s main focus, cannot participate or benefit from this global event.
These controversies should not divert attention from the pressing climate challenges facing Syria, especially Northeast Syria, which can no longer be dismissed. Recent years have brought a surge in extreme weather events—scorching temperatures, devastating wildfires, relentless droughts, and ceaseless sandstorms. These calamities, escalating in both frequency and ferocity, have heightened Syria’s susceptibility to the harsh impacts of climate change, emphasizing the urgent necessity for both short-term adaptation and long-term mitigation strategies. However, Syria’s unending 12-year conflict remains predominant in policymakers’ priorities, relegating the much needed proactive approaches to addressing these challenges to the background, as immediate regime survival demands precedence. Consequently, discussions on effectively addressing the extensive repercussions of climate change in Syria remain scarce and undeservingly overlooked.
My research shows that the reluctance to engage in climate-related actions primarily stems from a scarcity of financial resources amid the chaos of conflict, where urgent needs understandably take priority. This situation is particularly evident in Syria, where economic conditions steadily worsen due to factors such as the depreciation of the Syrian pound, consistent economic struggles, and a shortfall in state revenues. However, the country cannot afford to postpone climate change mitigation, further waiting for more funding, or a distant resolution to the conflict. The moment to act is now, before the situation becomes irrevocable. A vital step in confronting this challenge involves integrating a perspective that minimizes the unintentional ecological damage caused by humanitarian organizations and local authorities. The article is a call to action, a plea to prioritize the environment as a central element in Syria’s journey toward recovery and resilience.
Rising climate challenges
The Syrian conflict started in 2011 as a peaceful uprising, but escalated into a brutal war, primarily fueled by the government’s disproportionate use of force against non-violent demonstrators. Over the course of the past 12 years, the Syrian regime has been implicated in widespread war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons and the devastation of entire towns and cities. The impact on citizens has been devastating, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and over a staggering 11 million people have been displaced both internally and externally, constituting half of Syria’s population. This protracted crisis, caused primarily by Assad, has also exacted a devastating toll on vital services and infrastructure.
Simultaneously, Syria contends with record-breaking temperatures, compounding its climate-induced tribulations. With a frail economy and meager government support, the predominantly agriculture-reliant nation faces increasingly dire consequences. Food security plummets, while droughts intensify, worsening Syria’s water crisis. Ranked 146th out of 181 nations on the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) index, Syria stands among the most severely affected countries by the climate crisis, underscoring the nation’s acute vulnerability and limited resilience against climate change.
Despite the entire country grappling with environmental stress, the predicament is most dire in Northeast Syria
Despite the entire country grappling with environmental stress, the predicament is most dire in Northeast Syria. The region’s harsh desert-like conditions render it acutely susceptible to the effects of climate change, casting formidable shadows over agriculture and water resources. Recent scorching heat waves in the region, with temperatures soaring 8-10°C beyond the norm, engender increased evaporation, which worsens water scarcity. Key crops like wheat, cotton, and maize, fundamental to Syria’s agriculture, bear the brunt. Precipitation has dwindled, becoming less predictable and more erratic, exacerbating water scarcity and hindering farming planning. Long-term projections suggest the region will endure a drought every three years, foreshadowing dire implications for food security. With parched fields and diminished crop yields, the region’s economic backbone, reliant on agriculture, is coming under increasing strain, with no signs of these pressures backing down.
However, Northeast Syria presents itself as a prime ground for proactive measures. Despite sporadic security incidents, relative stability prevails in the region, setting it apart from other areas outside the regime’s control. Economic conditions are also somewhat more favorable, distinguishing Northeast Syria from areas under the Syrian regime’s grip, where economic decline and protests loom. Benefiting from a steady influx of foreign assistance, Northeast Syria’s Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration offers a more conducive environment for non-governmental organizations. These unique circumstances make it an ideal testing ground for pioneering strategies in combating climate change, with a primary focus on mitigating the inadvertent environmental repercussions of their operations.
Agriculture interventions: Balancing progress and sustainability
In the face of these environmental and war-related challenges, the interventions of aid actors working to revitalize the strategic agricultural sector have predominantly concentrated on restoring irrigation networks that were ravaged by the prolonged conflict. They drilled new wells, rebuilt irrigation systems, and helped farmers restart by providing essential equipment, fuel, agricultural inputs, and cash. These initiatives have yielded tangible successes in restoring the sector and boosting its production, especially in Raqqa.
Nonetheless, such prevailing success proves only to be fleeting. Regrettably, these emergency measures are coaxing farmers back toward water-intensive farming techniques, something that the ecosystem can scarcely endure due to a precipitous decline in the water levels of the Euphrates River. Further, this pump-centric approach further endangers the region’s groundwater resources. Northeast Syria has witnessed a steady decline in groundwater levels well before the war started in 2011, as inadequate public water supply systems and minimal regulatory scrutiny contributed to an upsurge in unauthorized well drilling. These trends have only persisted after the onset of the war.
There exists an opportunity for humanitarian organizations to adapt their assistance to farmers to mitigate water consumption
Given that the region’s agricultural sector predominantly uses freshwater resources, there exists an opportunity for humanitarian organizations to adapt their assistance to farmers to mitigate water consumption. This adaptation could manifest through the provision of drought- and salt-resistant seeds, particularly targeting rainfed agriculture. Additionally, NGOs could extend support in the form of small-scale loans to facilitate the establishment of greenhouses. This dual-purpose intervention not only enhances farmers’ livelihoods but also contributes to the amelioration of water consumption and enhanced water accessibility.
The solar energy question
The conflict and a lack of maintenance have significantly reduced the region’s electricity generation capacity by over 70 percent. As a result, there is a sporadic or even non-existent energy supply for crucial public services. In response, some stabilization initiatives have pivoted toward embracing renewable energy to power essential functions, from illuminating schools and hospitals to fueling water distribution and irrigation systems.
The transition to renewable energy is often hailed as a step in the right direction, a means to combat pollution and rein in CO2 emissions. However, if left unregulated, this transition can have adverse consequences. This situation is particularly evident in Northeast Syria, where the solar energy market is experiencing uncontrolled growth. Solar energy systems, like any technology, have a limited lifespan, which, due to the region’s lenient regulations and lack of rigorous quality checks, can be as short as a couple of years. Combined with the absence of infrastructure and proper programs for the disposal of worn-out solar components, this presents a looming toxic waste crisis with potential long-term health and environmental implications. This lack of strict regulations and enforcement mechanisms can also lead to excessive water consumption. After the initial capital investment, solar power essentially becomes cost-free. With readily available, unregulated energy, farmers are inclined to extract water for extended periods, increasing the risks of wastage and overexploitation.
To address these pressing issues, stringent regulations must be established and strictly enforced to oversee the installation and maintenance of solar energy systems. This will ensure that these systems meet quality standards and operate efficiently over an extended lifespan. Additionally, the establishment of recycling programs for worn-out solar components is imperative to prevent the impending toxic waste crisis. To tackle excessive water use, local authorities and NGOs should work closely with farmers to implement responsible usage practices and encourage efficient water management techniques.
Addressing water scarcity
Water scarcity throughout Northeast Syria is a pressing issue, but it reaches critical levels in Hassakeh, owing to a combination of harsh climate conditions and disruptions to the vital Alouk water station, which serves nearly 460,000 residents. As a result, households are forced to purchase expensive water brought in by tanker trucks. To ease this burden, local authorities and NGOs have initiated efforts to provide free water deliveries to the population. However, these well-intentioned charitable actions, despite addressing immediate concerns, carry the risk of overexploiting groundwater and exacerbating the region’s reliance on non-replenishing aquifers.
Additionally, these initiatives have caused water shortages in other areas, as the bulk water purchases made by these efforts are more attractive to tanker drivers, leading them to prioritize supplying Hassakeh. Piped-network water in many localities in Northeast Syria is technically free, since local authorities in these areas have refrained from collecting water fees in these areas due to challenges in collection or insufficient revenues resulting from low tariff rates. While this approach may benefit impoverished communities in northeastern Syria, it unintentionally promotes excessive water consumption, particularly in agricultural practices.
Enhanced regulations are imperative to combat water overuse and ensure sustainable access to water. At the same time, investments in upgraded water infrastructure and maintenance are necessary to guarantee a stable and dependable water supply while optimizing the efficiency of the distribution network. NGOs and local authorities should further explore sustainable water management solutions, including practices like rainwater harvesting and wastewater treatment. Implementing these measures can help alleviate water scarcity and strengthen the resilience of communities, not just in Hassakeh but across the broader northeastern region.
As the Syrian conflict shows no sign of abating, the looming climate-induced crises are poised to cast an even darker shadow over the nation, with Syria’s climate growing hotter and drier by the year. The urgency of the climate crisis must serve as a clarion call for all stakeholders to become more attuned to the environmental ramifications of their interventions—a crucial first step in averting unintended consequences on Syria’s environment and its people. Environmental degradation and the plundering of natural resources only serve to intensify social and political tensions, further entangling the already complex web of conflict.
Dr. Haid Haid is a columnist and a Senior Consulting Research Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Program.