Dust-Up in the North

Villagers complain of pollution from unlicensed stone quarries.

Dust-Up in the North

Villagers complain of pollution from unlicensed stone quarries.

Thursday, 8 October, 2009
The village of Khan al-Sobol is enveloped in heavy layers of dust much of the time from the uncontrolled, illegal spread of stone quarries around the city of Edleb in northwestern Syria.

“It often feels like I am suffocating,” said Abdul-Hamid Mubayed, 40, a vegetable farmer in the village, who says the dust has affected the productivity of his crops.

He and other residents of towns around Edleb have been raising their voices against the quarries, complaining that their unrestricted development is damaging health and their farmland.

The Syrian authorities have already moved some quarries over the last two years from near big cities visited by tourists like Damascus, Aleppo and Tartous to remoter areas because of the pollution and the damage to the environment.

The quarries produce a wide range of materials like rock, gravel and marble used in industry and construction. Demand for the products has grown as the economy develops and observers say quarrying is highly profitable.

Edleb and the surrounding area, however, have continued to suffer from a high number of quarries estimated by the environment ministry to be around 43. Many say that this contradicts the zoning of the area for agriculture and tourism.

The region includes many spectacular “dead cities” of ruined Byzantine churches, Roman temples and domestic buildings as well as the remains of an Islamic castle from the time of the Crusades.

Last month, after inhabitants say they had presented hundreds of letters of complaint to officials demanding action, the governor of Edleb closed about ten of the quarries on orders from the archaeological authorities in Damascus.

“Ten quarries have been stopped because they were using explosives near archaeological sites,” said Nicola Kabad, the director of the archaeology department in Edleb.

He added that only two of the quarries had licenses.

It remains unclear whether the owners of these quarries will be prosecuted.

Normally, to open a quarry in Syria, investors have to go through a long bureaucratic process, seeking approvals from various public institutions, including the agriculture and environment ministries.

But some residents of Edleb say that local officials were bribed to turn a blind eye to the existence of many illegal quarries.

While some are owned by private Syrian investors, the largest are managed by the state.

Quarry owners are legally required to rehabilitate areas after finishing the extraction but many do not do this.

Some of the inhabitants of Edleb said they had suffered in recent years from respiratory problems because of the quarries, visiting the doctor especially in winter when asthma becomes more acute.

“The dust generated by quarries can lead to lung infections and asthma,” said Dr Jamal Alia, a physician working in Edleb.

He said the number of asthma patients has been increasing because of air pollution.

One quarry worker who declined to give his name said that he has constant pain in his eyes caused by continuous exposure to dust.

Experts also said that quarries were responsible for damaging crops and endangering nearby forests.

“Quarries hamper agricultural activities,” said Manal al-Saqa, an agricultural engineer working for the environment ministry in Damascus.

The air pollution resulting from them has contributed to the deterioration of large areas of agricultural land, affecting trees and vegetation, she said.

Since quarries occupy huge spaces and require an extensive infrastructure to operate, many have encroached on orchards, natural reserves and agricultural land, said Mouin Kabro, an Edleb-based expert on geology.

In the medium and long term, quarries affect the fauna, the flora and the relief of the land, Kabro said.

He added that the large amount of explosives used to extract stone also affected underground water resources. Those living near quarries also complain about the sound pollution.

But one official at the environment ministry played down the effect of quarries on the environment.

“Quarries are not as harmful as they used to be before because of the use of filters that prevent the generation of dust,” said Fouad Jadid, vice-director of the environment ministry’s office in the nearby coastal town of Lattakia.
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