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Syria's River Is Overflowing Now That Its People Have Fled

The environmental impact of war is often overlooked, but always a disaster.
A man removes debris of a truck damaged after a mortar shell hit a street killing several people in the Bustan Al-Qasr district of Aleppo, on December 17, 2012.(AP Photo/Narciso Contreras)Image: Freedom House/Flickr

The Syrian civil war has wreaked havoc on the Middle East since 2011, with millions of Syrians fleeing the country and trying to survive in refugee camps while their hometowns have been reduced to rubble. Amid that conflict, Syria's rivers and water resources are literally overflowing, and few people are left to use them.

Ever since millions of people fled the country, the Jordan River—which runs through Israel, Jordan and Lebanon—has swelled more than three times its size in 2008. This is partially because there are few farmers left in the country to use water for their crops, and virtually no demand for the water for drinking and cooking within decimated cities, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America.


Image: Wikimedia

At least half of the river's water increase can also be attributed to Syrian residents fleeing the country. The other half is natural recovery from a years-long drought—one of the factors said to have caused tensions within Syria that led to the civil war.

"The effect is most apparent in the current Syrian civil war, where poor governance and over-reliance on intensive irrigation diminished the country's ability to cope with a severe drought," said the study's authors in a statement.

The study stated not much research has been done on how human conflict affects watershed regions because such data is difficult to get from a country in the midst of conflict. The advent of satellite technology has made this type of data more accessible.

A map of the irrigated crops and olives and freshwater resources year by year in Syria. Image: PNAS

Coincidentally, more water in the Jordan River could be a godsend for some refugees living in camps in Jordan, which is downstream from Syria. Jordan has a history of lacking enough water for its own residents, let alone millions of additional transient refugees. The increased water flow will help quench that need, the study stated.

The study, which used satellite images of the war-torn region to access water and agricultural resources and human movement, ultimately showed how much of an impact human activity has on the natural environment. If the Syrian civil war persists, researchers stated, Jordan might receive more water than usual for that timeframe, which could help their agricultural economy.


A map of the irrigated crops and olives and freshwater resources year by year in Syria. Image: PNAS

But that ironic silver lining is no match for the devastation that the Syrian conflict continues to cause, and most of the refugees who have left the countries struggle to meet their needs. The environmental damage of war is lesser-known than other side effects, but is almost always an important factor in a country's welfare.

Following a civil war in Congo in 1998, only 45 percent of the country's refugees had access to clean water, according to a report co-sponsored by UNICEF. A US Geological Survey report stated underground water basins in some parts of Afghanistan were contaminated during the Afghanistan War by poorly built wastewater wells that were nearby since wastewater facilities had been destroyed.

TL;DR: War sucks.

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