Research by a team of Syrian researchers, supported by academics from Sheffield Hallam University and funded by Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics), is the first to measure soil contamination in Northwest Syria since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
Their findings show widespread contamination by potentially toxic elements such as cadmium and arsenic. The highest levels are in districts between Aleppo and the Turkish border, an area which has seen some of the most severe impacts of the war.
Soil contamination at specific locations can be caused directly by the conflict, for example via military activity and explosive weapons, but the study’s findings of raised levels of contaminants across the region highlight the indirect risks to the environment from the collapse of the economy and infrastructure in the region.
Breakdown in environmental regulation of industries, damage to sanitation infrastructure, and lack of agricultural fertilisers has caused many farmers to irrigate fields using water supplies polluted by sewage and industrial wastes.
As well as the implications for health and food safety for the millions of internally displaced people living in the region, the accumulation of contaminants in the soil threatens the long-term recovery of agriculture in the region, which already struggles with extreme food insecurity.
Dr Jonathan Bridge, Academic Mentor on the project from Sheffield Hallam University, said: “Twelve years of war have created an environmental crisis in Northwest Syria as well as a humanitarian one. Our findings show an alarming deterioration in soil quality across NW Syria. Urgent action is required to assess the level of threat to human health and the agricultural economy both now and in the longer term.
“Our results highlight the crucial work of Cara’s Syria Programme enabling academics in the UK to support Syrian colleagues to pursue vital social, cultural and environmental research in the region. It has been a privilege to work with the Syrian team in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.”
Kate Robertson, Cara’s Middle East Advisor, said: “These research collaborations are not only invaluable in themselves, but they also allow Cara to connect Syrian academics to colleagues within the wider international academic community, enabling them to reclaim their academic identities and continue to contribute from exile.
"We are indebted to the many who, like Dr Jon Bridge (Sheffield Hallam University) and Professor Duncan Pirrie (University of South Wales), give selflessly of their time in an act of solidarity.”
The research was also supported by academics at the University of South Wales, Liverpool John Moores University, The James Hutton Institute and Robert Gordon University.