The Kurds of northeast Syria shot to global renown for their valiance against the Islamic State (IS). But today, they face a scourge that is potentially even more devastating, putting the lives of millions of local residents at risk: oil pollution.
Across the Kurdish-administered region, which is home to some 4 million people and sits on most of Syria’s contested oil, crude oil leaking from dilapidated pipelines and carcinogenic oil waste are contaminating rivers and streams. When the rivers flood, as they did most recently in April, they spread their poison over agricultural crops, just as thousands of rudimentary refineries belch their own toxic fumes into the air.
Dystopian images of scorched earth and blackened water have failed to make an impact. Sporadic protests have resulted in makeshift refineries being shut down, only for them to pop up elsewhere.
In telephone interviews with Al-Monitor, locals in affected areas say that diseases, including cancers, are multiplying. All requested anonymity for fear of retribution from authorities, a telling sign of just how neuralgic the issue is.
A pharmacist from eastern Deir ez-Zor countryside, where primitive refining runs rampant, said, “Sicknesses that previously had disappeared have started to spread in our areas. Birth defects, meningitis, skin inflammation, severe respiratory illnesses. As for the birth defects — we’re seeing a lot of cases. Hypothyroidism at birth, thalassemia, hemophilia. What I know is that they are spread across the entire province but are more common and more concentrated in areas with oil wells.”
He added, “I’m from the area; our agricultural harvests now are terrible compared to 10 years ago. Green space has diminished. Most of the trees have died because of the soil and air pollution.”
Mohammed Khalaf, the pseudonym of a researcher and journalist in Deir ez-Zor, described the process of primitive refining: “The refinery is a container, which is filled with crude oil. They light a fire beneath it, and that’s how the refining happens. Diesel, gasoline, gas and grease are produced. This operation produces foul-smelling smoke that causes diseases and damages the environment, people’s health and animals.”
Khalaf said, “Even clothing after you wash it, you’ll hang it up on clotheslines on the roof. In the morning, you’ll find the clothing is black from the smoke. Once I filled up my house's water tank but forgot to cover it at night. I woke up in the morning to find the surface of the water was all diesel.”
He added, "Imagine sometimes during the day there’s a black cloud above Deir ez-Zor in general, like black clouds.”
Rogue refining can be addressed through tighter supervision. But contamination from leaking pipelines, oil spills and authorities outright dumping waste into rivers will affect human and animal health for decades to come.
As Western donors gather in Brussels today to discuss aid for Syria, the looming environmental crisis in northeast Syria is unlikely to make the agenda, and Syrian Kurdish officials won’t rush to complain. Abdelkareem Malek, the energy minister of the autonomous administration, did not respond to Al-Monitor’s repeated requests for comment, nor did the environment minister, Joseph Lahdu.
Pressure to sustain the autonomous administration's fragile economy, which relies in large part on ever-dwindling oil revenues, together with the fraught nature of its relations with the Syrian regime mean that the environment is treated almost as a boutique issue. The matter of who sells the oil to where and to whom and where the profits go remains extremely opaque. Sales to the regime and the less documented yet significant trade with Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey remain controversial, as people living under the Kurdish-run region suffer chronic fuel shortages.
It’s no secret, however, that shares in the oil pie buy the local government peace with restive Arab tribes, notably the Shammar, who populate the border with Iraq.
In October 2019, faced by the outcry caused by Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring assault against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), President Donald Trump said he had ordered several hundred US forces to remain in northeast Syria “to secure the oil” and prevent proceeds from its sale from winding up in IS’s coffers again. But US officials have yet to comment on the life-threatening effects of unsafe production.
A senior official from the autonomous administration confirmed to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity that the United States is not providing either financial or technical assistance to help address the problem. “President Trump pledged to protect oil facilities, and we are grateful to him. But of course, it is not their responsibility to ensure production,” the official noted, adding, “But if there is any assistance in this regard, that would be welcome.”
The State Department did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.
The official asserted that the autonomous administration had issued a law “to stop” illegal refineries, but there was “leniency in implementation due to difficult economic conditions.”
He added that seminars were being organized by local authorities to raise awareness about the dangers of oil pollution.
River of death
A chilling report by Dutch nongovernmental organization PAX that is due to be launched tomorrow offers a rare glimpse into the effects of chronic leakage and dumping from a large storage facility that lies 15 kilometers (9 miles) southwest from the town of Derik, which used to be owned by the state-run Syrian Petroleum Company. It collects all the crude carried via a pipeline running directly from the Rmeilan oil field, which is protected by US forces. Using satellite imagery, PAX tracked leakage from the facility called Gir Zero, which began in the summer of 2013. Open-air reservoirs around the facility started to leak, “and a significant part of the facility’s grounds turned black as oil and/or oil waste spilled over,” the report notes. Then, “sometime in September 2014,” satellite images show that a canal was dug “to connect to a local river.” This “likely functioned as a sort of valve to release pressure from on-site spills, as local authorities did not have sufficient resources or capacity to deal with the problem.” The waste made its way into a small creek flowing southward into the Wadi Rumaila, a tributary of the larger Wadi Awarid seasonal river that runs through 30 villages and connects with the Euphrates River.
Crude oil creeks are pictured in the fields of Kharab Abu Ghalib, April 26, 2020 (photo by Abdullah Mohammed)
The leaks — and the pollution — are ongoing, according to PAX’s Humanitarian Disarmament program leader Wim Zwijnenburg, who is also one of the authors of the report titled “River of Death.” “A rough estimate indicates that tens of thousands of barrels of oil and wastewater have already been released into the rivers, and if this isn’t stopped soon, it will only worsen the environmental catastrophe for thousands of families living in the area,” Zwijnenburg told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview. A local woman quoted in the report blamed a series of miscarriages she had on the pollution.
Samir Madani, a co-founder of tankertrackers.com, a website dedicated to tracking storage and shipment of crude oil, reckons that the leakage may have gone on for at least 730 days. With an estimated buildup of around 60 barrels of crude daily, “this would amount to 50,000 so far,” Madani told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview. Madani, who collaborated with PAX on the report, added, “This is a leak that is continuing and still flowing out of the area.”
A new wave of crude oil washed over fields and villages in Rmeilan in March after an explosion occurred in a corroded pipeline network in the area. The oil made its way to nearby rivers and contaminated at least 18,000 square meters of land in and around the village of Kharab Abu Ghalib.
A goat grazes near a crude oil-polluted riverbank near Gir Zero, northeast Syria, April 27, 2020 (photo by Abdullah Mohammed)
Seasonal flooding compounds the problem. Over 80,000 acres of agricultural land around Tel Hamis in Hasakah governorate were flooded in April with oil-contaminated water. A further 20,000 acres in Jazah also in Hasakah and 10,000 in Rmeilan were submerged as well.
A resident from Jazah who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, “In the past, people used the river to water their fields. Now it’s oil, so people don’t use it for irrigation. As for the authorities, the municipality was here, they saw what was going on, we talked. But they don’t have the ability to solve the issue at its core. They only did one thing. They sent a bulldozer and made an earthen berm; they raised a berm on both sides of the river. But this isn’t a solution. The berm isn’t along the entire river — only at specific points for 500 or 600 meters. This wasn’t to protect the fields but to prevent the water from flooding the village. The water used to get into the village, into residential homes, along with the oil. So they raised the berm.”
The man echoed complaints that the autonomous administration was generally unresponsive to citizens’ woes. “For someone to say ‘I want to go to the autonomous administration and make a complaint, ask for help,’ he’s definitely playing a joke on you. Impossible. For there to be a positive outcome, they wouldn’t have built up those oil facilities and dumped the oil in the running water [in the first place],” he groused.
According to Hassan Partow, an environment expert at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the environmental and health hazards posed by oil contamination in northeast Syria far outweigh those encountered in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led coalition’s targeting of oil assets controlled by IS. They are also far harder to fix, especially as the scope of the problem and its overall impact remain unassessed.
“Oil pollution in Iraq was largely caused by [IS] sabotage during their forced retreat. While there were major pollution incidents, some lasting for months, these were by and large one-off events,” Partow told Al-Monitor in emailed comments.
He continued, “The situation in northeast Syria is more complex in that oil pollution is a chronic problem dating from the outbreak of the crisis nearly a decade ago. While in Iraq’s case the oil industry remains intact and under central [government] command,” in northeast Syria there are thousands of “artisanal oil refining clusters that are very difficult to control due to their freestyle and itinerant nature.” Finally, unlike in Iraq, the oil spills are occurring “in the country’s prime agricultural breadbasket. The dense stream network of northeast Syria is acting as a conduit carrying the oil pollution into the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates River, and there is no clear end in sight or game plan on how to deal with this serious problem,” Partow observed.
Sheep wander through fields contaminated with oil after a pipeline burst and spilled through the village of Kharab Abu Ghalib, April 26, 2020 (photo by Abdullah Mohammed)
International politics stand in the way. Just as the World Health Organization has been reluctant to engage directly with the autonomous administration to help it cope with the coronavirus pandemic for fear of upsetting the central government in Damascus, UNEP would likely await a formal invitation from Bashar al-Assad's regime in order to intervene in the northeast.
But the Assad regime has little interest in helping to repair the oil infrastructure unless it is allowed to regain control over the oil fields, something Russia, its top ally, literally pushed for when Wagner mercenaries tried to overrun SDF-protected fields in Deir ez-Zor, only to be repelled by US forces. Further sanctions introduced under the Caesar Act means no Western company would risk investing in Syria’s crumbling oil network. And Damascus lacks the means to finance repairs.
An SDF official speaking not for attribution said it would take up to $100 million to get the Rmeilan and al-Omar fields, where most of the oil lies, back to full productive capacity. Prior to the war, Syria was producing around 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Current production is estimated at 60,000 barrels per day, much of it low grade.
A staffer at a local NGO, however, maintained that the Syrian Oil Company continues to send spare parts to oil facilities in the northeast along with technical staff. This dynamic allows local authorities to avoid taking responsibility for oil pollution, as the autonomous administration office can direct resident complaints to central government staff, who in turn can tell residents to take their complaints to the autonomous administration.
The senior autonomous administration official disputed this version of events, saying there was no staff currently employed by the state but rather some technicians and engineers who opted to stay on and work on the local payroll. Either way, the US presence at the oil facilities may well have upended existing agreements.
Fabrice Balanche, a geographer and associate professor at France’s Lyon II University who has studied Syria closely from the ground, airs skepticism over just how long the US presence will last. Its apparent commitment — and credibility — were badly weakened by Trump’s decision to pull back US forces from the Turkish border ahead of the Turkish invasion last fall.
Satellite imagery shows al-Qahtaniyah (photo by MAXAR/ESRI Maps 2018 via Zoom.Earth)
“I believe there will be a new Turkish offensive and that it will target Qahtaniyah,” he told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview, referring to an Arab majority town that lies east of Qamishli and has oil nearby. Ankara would likely profit from Washington’s wobbles during the transition period between the US presidential election in November and January when the new president is sworn in to make a final move that would cut off Qamishli from the Iraqi border, which is the Kurdish-run region’s sole outlet to the outside world. The Russians would likely support the Turkish move on the grounds that it would squeeze the Americans in nearby Rmeilan and compel them to leave.
SDF Commander in Chief Mazlum Kobane aired worries about Turkish designs on al-Qahtaniyah in a January interview with Al-Monitor. In the meantime, oil pollution is spreading unchecked, Abdel Nasser al-Ayed, editor-in-chief of online newspaper JesrPress, told Al-Monitor. Ayed added, “Day after day, there is something accumulating in the air, in the soil, in people’s bodies, and when it reaches a certain level, it causes illness or death.”