Environmental leaders in North and East Syria – interviews with Jazira Canton Municipality and ‘Keziyen Kesk’ organization

This report was published by Rojava Information Center on 1 August, 2023

In the face of an array of ecological challenges, a range of actors in NES have been working to cultivate an “environmentally minded population”. RIC spoke with Berivan Omer, a member of Jazira region’s leadership board and the women’s ecology platform, Ziwer Shexo, a volunteer for Keziyen Kesk (‘Green Braids’), a popular environmental initiative, and Bave Barzan, a Qamishlo local responsible for managing one of the city’s neighbourhood generators, about the various ecological issues experienced in NES and the efforts undertaken to solve them.

“Within the principles of the AANES is the principle of social ecology. This concept isn’t just about how we can protect ecology, but it relates to a way of managing a community. The protection of the environment is a part of this”, says Omer, who has worked in her position since 2016. She tells RIC about her family history, saying that living an ecological life used to be something natural, not something that had to be struggled for. “In the past, people protected their environment. Still now in the villages people do so. They are more united with nature, raising animals, not using so much energy that destroys the environment like in cities. We want to teach the communes how to separate the garbage now, but my mother was separating the garbage in previous times, and no one had to tell her how to do it. She was feeding animals, so the family had yogurt and eggs, which they made themselves, so there was no need to bring them from somewhere else. You didn’t need a car to bring your needs, you didn’t need to gather loads of animals together in a big place to get milk and yogurt, you could take care of yourself by yourself. Also important is that no company or single person would control yogurt, for example, or manipulate prices. All people could provide for themselves; there was self-sufficiency. We need to look what ecological knowledge is already existing in our society. For example, older people who lived in villages before. We can benefit from their experiences, in terms of how they dealt with trash, how they recycled. My mother doesn’t really produce trash. She uses things many times, until it actually is trash. This is a form of culture.”

Berivan Omer – Jazira region’s leadership board and women’s ecology platform

Water issues are continually brought up in the conversations. While NES is naturally arid, with long hot summers and little annual precipitation, the effects of global climate change are predicted to be particularly severe in Syria. Meanwhile, the flow of the once mighty Euphrates River has drastically reduced, as upstream damming in Turkey has allowed for the latter to limit flow into Syria. The Khabur River and its streams too have partially or fully dried up. Meanwhile, water from NES’ Alouk water station, which sits in the Turkish-occupied ‘M4 Strip’ is vulnerable to political games, as the Syrian National Army (SNA) which control the area frequently cut the flow off.

“In general, the problem of water is big, especially in Heseke”, says Omer. “The situation there in terms of cleanliness and planting trees is difficult. People can’t even get enough drinking water. If you discuss ecological problems there, people say “I don’t even have water to drink”. Before the Turkish occupation of Sere Kaniye, Heseke had water, but not after. Turkey uses the water to make demands. It is not just the people of Heseke who suffer from this. The people of Sere Kaniye too, many of whom were displaced and fled to Heseke. They rely on tanked water. Bringing tanked water requires oil. We have some projects to solve this crisis but until they are implemented, we need water tanks.”

She states that until those projects are fully approved and announced, little formal information such as cost and operational output can be given but explained that the key project should see water brought to Heseke from a village near Amude via new pipes. One year ago, work began to research groundwater stores in Heseke, by geologists and other scientists. They found that the drinkable water closest to Heseke is in Sere Kaniye (now under Turkish occupation), Tel Brak, or Amude area. Amude, sitting at around 60km from Heseke, is not the ideal location, but there was nothing closer, Omer says. When you get closer to the city, the water is not clean enough. The cost of cleaning that water cancels out the benefits it could bring. The plan is to dig wells in the Amude village, where the water is “really good and plentiful”, and then install pipes to bring this water to Heseke city. One test well has been dug so far. If the project is completed, “it still won’t be able to provide water daily; I don’t say this will solve the problem in Heseke completely, but it will be part of the solution. It will help”, says Omer. She also mentions one other project that was initiated to solve Heseke’s acute water shortage: a plan based on the skeleton of a barely-started Syrian government project to channel water to Heseke from the Euphrates River. “We continued this project last year. The problem we see is that the people who live in villages near the river pipe tap the water illegally, so the amount that reaches the city is minimal. The project was only ever estimated to provide 20% of the city’s water needs, but people siphoning off water before it even reaches the city means its provision is really low and the water flow is slow. The amount reaching the city is not enough. And the villages near the pipe also suffer from a lack of water, so they don’t have much choice but to take it. So, the Euphrates project is there, but doesn’t provide the needed amount.”

Shexo still remembers what NES’ rivers were like in his childhood, he says, referencing how Turkey’s dam building has spelled disaster for them. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t even go to my local river so easily, because in the winter there would be floods. Even in the summer, the water would never dry out. My family had a garden and grew many kinds of vegetables to sell. There were fish in the river; we ate them. The region was generally vibrant. You could find everything you wanted: birds, fish, types of herbs whose names we don’t even know now. These rivers are gone now: no water, no fish, no gardens, no trees. The village I grew up in is empty. Turkey’s GAP project caused a big ecological change here, which in turn caused waves of displacement.” Shexo is angry that the Syrian government has not taken more action against Turkey’s dam building, but says he is resigned to the reality that “both governments – Syria and Turkey – agree on annihilating the Kurds and damaging these regions because the Kurds live here.” He continues, “Syria does not have a problem with such practices; whatever Turkey does, Syria does not interfere.”

Ziwer Shexo – Keziyen Kesk

In both interviews, Omer and Shexo stress the issue of societal mentality as important. Omer explained: “Mentality is the problem we face. We need to change, and it is difficult. I mean, to convince people to take care of what is around them, planting trees, not making places dirty, not throwing garbage. It takes time to teach this mentality. Regarding changing mentalities, this could best happen in schools, teaching the kids and the new generation.” Indeed, that is a big part of the work of Keziyen Kesk, which was set up in November 2020, Shexo tells RIC. “We want students to act in environmentally minded ways, not just theoretically but in practice, to cultivate an environmentally minded population. We give theoretical and practice classes. For example, we teach a teacher how to make a tree sapling. Then the students can learn how to do it. Alongside this, the students get lessons about trees and the environment. Then they will be able to better understand, as they see how their tiny sapling becomes a massive tree. Another important activity is gathering garbage and sorting it according to plastic and glass. This is also done with students, as part of daily environmental works, so it becomes part of the students’ mentality. If this happens, the students can themselves spread this mentality amongst their friends and family, take responsibility, make the needed changes, so it won’t only be a matter of one or two people, it could be a whole community working according to environmental standards. In short, this is what our schools project is based on, and this is just the beginning. It took one year for us to talk with the AANES Education body and for our proposal to be accepted. We have the aim of making schools the core of an environmental mentality and bring up a generation who takes care of the environment.” Omer too is in and out of schools, giving lectures, planting trees, and cleaning the school grounds with the students.

Berivan Omer presenting an educational seminar

Within cities, ecological problems are particularly acute. Bave Barzan laments the rubbish on the streets in Qamishlo, saying, “In terms of garbage on the streets, before the revolution there was some garbage, but not at this level. There was not this much dirt, although there was tyranny from the State. I think this is connected to 12 years of war. We don’t want to have garbage in the city. We pay monthly for the municipality garbage service. We want our streets to be clean, free from polluting cars. We want clean nature and forests.” Omer rejects the notion that the municipality needed to do more to keep streets clean: “Responsibility for cleaning lies both in the hands of the AANES and the people. But to be honest, I don’t understand why the AANES should clean our streets or houses. No one can deny that the AANES works hard on these things; if they stopped working for one day, you can’t imagine what would happen. But the municipality doesn’t need to come and collect every person’s garbage and clean their surroundings. There is a garbage container in every neighbourhood. People should remove their own things and put their garbage there. Sometimes the municipality’s truck goes 3 times to one neighbourhood to gather up their garbage. The municipality doesn’t have so many workers, maybe 100 to 200. Meanwhile the people are big in number. We shouldn’t think in this way that the municipality workers should do everything. We shouldn’t learn that another person should come to clean on our behalf. I do see that the garbage containers are not enough, and there is no sorting. But it is a problem if we think the cleanliness of the street is just an issue for the municipality to solve.” Omer notes that the AANES does have environmental laws and regulations about trash disposal, but that implementation is minimal: “In the time of the [Syrian] regime, there was fear. The police were strict and people were afraid of breaking the law. Maybe this plays a role in people’s behaviour. The AANES is new and not strict towards this. There are municipality laws for cleanliness, including taking the garbage out, but implementation is so difficult. You can get fined, but it takes months in court and probably in the end you don’t pay anything. But the solution is not to be stricter. The solution is to speak with kids, teaching them why they shouldn’t spoil their surroundings. Cities are too big anyway to observe and catch every garbage thrower. But we will establish committees in the communes to help the municipality and spread and implement the laws around cleanliness.”

There are new waste management projects, Omer says. She brings up the issue of trash dumping in the long stretch of land between Heseke and Raqqa cities and tells of an upcoming project to remove all this trash, saying the planning is in the final stages. “The trash will be collected and taken to another place where it can be sorted. We are also having discussions with cooperatives about how they can be involved in this work. A transportation station will be built, so big trucks can take the garbage there.” There is also a project to implement specialized waste management strategies for hospital waste, although this is still in the early stages.

Keziyen Kesk take tree planting as a core priority. Upon founding, one of the team’s first activities was to research tree coverage in NES, looking at UN figures and trying to account for the decimation of trees since the Syrian Civil War. Shexo says that currently the team tries to find empty areas and make agreements with landowners to start planting saplings and establishing small arboretums. 10 such arboretums have been created so far. He explains that ISIS used forested places for training and many trees were cut or used for target practice or dried up through lack of water. In addition, many were sold to burn for heating.

Two new small forests have been established in Tirbespi and Qamishlo areas, says Omer. “This is something that gives us hope. Before we were planting 100, 200, 300 trees and seeing that as a big thing, but now we are talking 30,000, 40,000.” She also says that the opening of arboretums has been a big step, because previously the AANES had to bring trees from other places, such as Homs and Hama, where the soil and environment is different, therefore the trees struggle to survive in NES’ environmental conditions.

Tree planting in Qamishlo city

The scarcity of trees in NES has its historical reasons, says Shexo. “Before, the Syrian government did not allow for trees to be planted here in this region to make forests. Also, you couldn’t use your farmland to grow olives, for example. You had to just grow cotton and wheat. The government forced people to grow only that with the government needed to get richer. In the 90s, some people gathered to plant trees, I know them. The Syrian government intelligence took them and tortured them. If you showed this to the government, they would deny it. They would show documents that stipulate that for every well drilled, 30-50 trees should be planted.” Yet, Shexo says, there are around 2,000 wells here, but very few trees. He explains that government workers would be paid in exchange for letting the owners of wells not plant any trees. “They [the government] say that the people of this region have no environmental culture of planting trees. They won’t say that it was their own plans and policies that resulted in this situation.” Even now, the Damascus government presents obstacles to tree growing: “We tried to bring certain seeds here, but the government did not allow it. We tried to bring them in secret ways, but they lasered the seeds, killing their organic components, so when we planted them, they did not grow. This is one way in which this region is under siege. We are really forced to find regional solutions and not rely on the outside.”

The AANES are in the process of creating a laboratory to analyse air and soil pollution, Omer tells, which will help inform decisions about tree planting, because “we currently don’t have much specific information about how much and what kind of pollution there is”.

Nine months ago, Keziyen Kesk started a project with Jazira region’s village municipalities, also based on tree planting. Each municipality connects around 60 villages. “We visited each municipality in the beginning, to talk with them about the importance of working on environmental issues. They would say: “We have so many problems already”. It took us some time to convince the co-chairs of the municipalities”, explains Shexo. “We will be visiting them again, one by one, each municipality, staying with them a whole day to help them and do things with them. Our goal is that the municipalities themselves can give trees and saplings for free to the people of the villages.”

Shexo notes that people are reluctant to put in the work to slowly nurture a sapling to a tree. He links this to a desire for things that come easily and are prepared for you. Omer also brings up this issue, arguing that this is a relatively new mindset in this region. “A few years before the revolution, there was not this consumption of things that is seen today”, she says. “Today, things don’t last long. For example, the use of plastic is really dangerous. And things like ready-made food; everything pre-made, ready for you, coming from outside. Most imports come from Turkey, or also from Iran and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Things aren’t made here. It is like an attack: the imposition of quick life, urgent life, the influence of capitalism, the influence of outside lifestyles… these have really entered our life here. Everything is fast, urgent, consumption is high. People don’t know how to make food from scratch anymore or take care of animals or trees.” Omer says that her department conducted research on the contents of garbage bins. 60% of the trash was organic waste. “This means that people aren’t using all their food”. Meanwhile, “some people eat from the rubbish. This has happened during this time. Before, it wasn’t like this, people noticed each other, there wasn’t this difference between some people throwing away food and others eating it from the trash. There has been a change in this period. The influence of war, the influence of there not being enough to go around arrived.” She also references the issue of plastic trash, saying “now, every day, we are using so much plastic. In all places. The plastic becomes trash and becomes a problem, so we need to address this, solve it. But we also have to look at life a little; the form of human life has changed. Before, people were not like this. There are still many good examples. If you go a bit away from Qamishlo, go to a village, you will see a good life being lived, a life that doesn’t pollute so much, where people are one with their environment. They don’t have so many problems like there are inside the city where it is becoming hard to breathe. We have to work on building a better culture of consumption. This means education, changing mentalities, making people familiar. But time is required for people to adjust and to solve things.”

Omer brings up efforts made towards recycling of trash. Several small recycling centers established by individuals for themselves exist in the Jazira region, Omer recalls adding that there is also one recycling center in Manbij. One owned by the AANES is in Heseke. Two communes gather and sort their garbage, and send certain cardboard to the AANES recycling center, and send plastic to another factory. She reveals that the Barcelona local government has helped with education and training in terms of garbage sorting.

Omer is clear that oil is a problem in NES, but because things like cars and generators depend on oil, the opportunities for moving away from oil are scarce. Shexo elaborates on the history of oil production in Syria, explaining that while most of Syria’s oil extraction always took place in the oil-rich northeast, facilities for refining oil were only built near Damascus. “Any strategic facilities that were important to the Syrian government were never built in the Kurdish-majority regions”. When oil fields in the region fell into the hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and later ISIS, crude and makeshift methods for refining oil greatly proliferated, causing damage to the surrounding environment. Shexo says that under the AANES, this practice wasn’t shut down but continued. He tells RIC that a new refining station is being built, because currently there is only one refining station in NES, which was established to lessen the need to take oil to government-regions to be refined, but whose production is not enough for the whole of NES. “This new station will positively change the situation in terms of meeting energy needs here: there is a huge need for energy as the population is increasing, the cities are getting bigger, and displaced people from all other regions of Syria have come here to settle down. But in terms of the environment, it is harmful. The problem of eco-unfriendly refineries continues and greatly affects the environment. The Global Coalition and European countries should help us on this issue. For us as Keziyen Kesk, we say that we should put an end to oil use and base our strategy on clean energy and be the first administration to announce the stopping of the use of oil; we should be the first who calls for such an initiative, but currently the AANES is not in a good position to do this. Yes, it is true, there is war. A fight against ISIS and Turkish attacks and an embargo, but if we had a chance, we should go ahead with clean energy and use that instead of oil.”

Solar power is present across all of Syria, Shexo notes, especially in Damascus where there are some big stations, but in NES there are only smaller personal projects for individual houses. “Solar energy comes in levels. I personally work in this field. The requests we get [here in NES] are for individual houses rather than for providing electricity to villages for example. There are some discussions but nothing more regarding huge stations.” Yet there are many difficulties associated with this, such as the need for advanced technical equipment on a large scale, which is not available in Syria, and needs to be imported at a high cost and with great difficulty, he states. “We want to make them, we really want to start with these stations, because it is the reality of the future that we will have to use them, not just here but in all countries. We need to start with clean energy. The conditions here in Syria are good because the sun gives so much power. There are studies on such projects but currently nothing is in progress. People install personal solar panels but there are no projects on the level of villages of cities.”

Omer stresses the need for communes to play an active role in environmental initiatives: “What is important for the future is ecological projects in the communes. Currently there are two communes in Heseke involved in trash sorting. Democracy and ecology are intertwined actually. If a commune is able to make decisions and people are collaborating, these are important steps for achieving self-sufficiency. If people are working together you need less cars to transport things from far away. Since communes are our key actor here, we should give support to them. We are the regional municipality, but communes are also part of regional management. We complete each other and collaborate with each other. Our roles are according to our capabilities.” Importance is given to global environmental days, such as Earth Day, she says. Special activities or events with the communes are organized to mark these occasions.

Tree planting in Qamishlo city

The optimism Omer holds is clear throughout the conversation. “We have made steps”, she asserts. “To be honest, most people did not have a good idea about what ecology was prior to the revolution. This concept has developed so much with the revolution. This topic is becoming more interesting for people. I mean, it was not like this 4 or 5 years ago. Now, when you bring up this topic, people listen to you. Many people have started environmental initiatives or tree planting. I have been working on this, making initiatives and campaigns and I see that participation is high. In this way, ideas and beliefs start to spread in the community. In the beginning our projects were small, but they have been growing with time. We were very focussed on planting and protecting trees, but in the last year there have been bigger projects to solve problems in cities.”

Shexo also emphasizes that recent years have seen the proliferation of associations and initiatives related to the environment in NES. “Civil society more broadly has started to develop and work on ecological projects. Step by step, we have managed to make a group of some civil community associations that work for the environment. We want to put all the associations and organizations interested in the environment under one umbrella, so that our plans and strategy can be unified, especially since environmental protections are weak and not organized. If we gather together, we will be stronger.” Keziyen Kesk would like to have more collaboration with the AANES, Shexo says, and adds that more active environmental regulation is needed. “In our strategy, we involve all the people: students, the old, the young, schools, communes. The AANES should support and help us.” Outside of the AANES, Shexo says that Keziyen Kesk is searching for connections and communication with other environmental associations and organizations in Europe and America. “Many environmental organizations have been working for decades, but we are only starting, so we need education and training on many aspects. We need to participate in meetings about environmental protection at the world level. We would really benefit from this. In general, here, we are still in a war situation. Within this, we hope to be the voice of the environment.”

The situation of war, past and present, is continually brought up in all three interviews. “In NES, the war impacted everything so much”, says Bave Barzan. “When people ran out of fuel, they would go to cut trees. When electricity blackouts began to be so frequent, people needed generators. One of the reasons for the blackouts was the reduction of water flow in the dams.” Bave Barzan laments the need for generators. “I will now go to turn on the generator to have electricity”, he says, striding off to just outside his house where the neighbourhood generator is located, “but if the main electricity supply would come it would be better for the environment and civilians”. He also references Turkey’s cutting off the water flow entering NES, saying that the resultant poor functioning of NES’ dams limits the general electricity supply. “At the start of the Syrian Civil War, the electricity lines and stations were all damaged. It was 3 hours with electricity, 3 hours without. That winter was really difficult; people went to cut trees to burn on wood stoves. Then a wealthy family bought the generator for this neighbourhood. We are just responsible for running it and collecting the monthly money. In the city the generators produce smoke and pollute the streets. There is a long way to go to improve this. The city is full of noise and black smoke because of the generators. This affects the health of the people, but we are forced to use it because there is little electricity. The solution here is an improvement to the public electricity supply.”

“Ecology is a fundamental principle of the AANES”, says Omer, “but the AANES is always in a state of emergency. There is war.” She then brings up the topic of tree cutting at the hands of the SNA in Turkish-occupied Afrin. “In my opinion, Afrin is the most beautiful and green city. But you see what is happening there; almost half a million trees have been cut since it was invaded by Turkey in 2018. This is also a matter of mentality. The people who cut trees don’t know what the trees mean. They just came, saw them, and cut them without any hesitation. Turkey destroys the ecology there. How can you destroy a place or a region and kill people just for your interests, under pretexts like protecting your territories? The situation is so difficult there.”

“War also meant that educated people, engineers, people with environmental knowledge migrated away”, says Shexo.

For all AANES employees, Omer says that Turkish drone strikes hamper their work. “The ongoing Turkish attacks on our region are an obstacle”, she declares. “Recently the co-chair of the regional administration lost her life in an attack. I was shocked when I heard. What is the reason for Turkey killing her? Trying to build a community in which people can co-exist together? Employees of the AANES work hard, do their job, and then they get targeted and killed by Turkey. Imagine you are building something great for people and this is your reason for being killed. Every time these attacks happen, it limits our work for some time, as we fear going out too much. This means we don’t go out to see our projects, or attend meetings, because we don’t want to risk lives. It really affects us; it puts obstacles in front of our work. It is hard to work well in such circumstances.”