New Environment Ministry Faces Challenges

Many doubt whether ministry will have enough of a budget and clout to be effective.

New Environment Ministry Faces Challenges

Many doubt whether ministry will have enough of a budget and clout to be effective.

Monday, 27 July, 2009
Conflicts of interest between the newly-established Syrian environment ministry and the country’s polluting industries will probably make it difficult for the new department to have much effect, observers say.

In April, as part of a ministerial reshuffle, a presidential decree announced the creation of a new environment ministry and appointed as minister Kawkab al-Dayeh, who has extensive experience in environmental and health work.

For many years, environmental issues were dealt with officially by the ministry of local administration. Only briefly between 2001 and 2003 was the ministry of the environment independent.

Environmental advocates welcomed the move as evidence that the authorities were willing to allocate more resources to solving the country’s growing environmental challenges.

Syria suffers from problems like overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, and water and air pollution as well as inadequate water supplies as more people move to towns and cities.

Many expressed doubts, however, that the ministry’s budget and clout will be enough to result in the necessary action.

Work to protect the environment conflicts with the interests of an industrial sector led by influential economic figures, said Hannan Noufouj, an official at the environment directorate in the industrial city of Homs.

Adopting cleaner industrial practices, like relocating factories and installing more sophisticated filters for certain industries to reduce pollution, would lead to serious confrontation with powerful people, she said.

Industrialists try to avoid buying expensive environmentally friendly equipment and many circumvent procedures when applying for licences to build factories, she added.

As an example, Noufouj said many olive oil factories lacked the filters that could prevent the waste from polluting river water.

In a May interview in the official Al-Baath newspaper, the new minister said that she would focus her efforts, in coordination with the ministry of industry, on making sure all factories adopted production processes that protect the environment.

“The ministry will put forward plans and programmes to face the challenges that are constantly growing with the development of the economy and industry in Syria,” Dayeh said.

The ministry will concentrate on the protection of national resources and biodiversity and will undertake awareness campaigns to involve citizens in preserving nature and reducing consumption, she added.

Public employees working in the environmental field say, however, that the environment has not so far been at the top of the agenda of policy-makers.

One of the obstacles is that the environment ministry does not have any executive powers. It can inspect industrial facilities and ask the relevant provincial governor to shut them down but it does not have the authority to impose any decisions and can only make recommendations, Noufouj said.

Although there were laws for the protection of the environment, the problem was that they remained poorly implemented, she added.

Noufouj also complained that the new ministry has not yet fleshed out any concrete plans of work.

No decisions have so far been made regarding the budget to be allocated to the environment nor the number of employees working for the ministry, she added.

According to Adnan Khozam, who was the minister of state for environmental affairs between 2001 and 2003, the current financial resources at the disposal of the relevant official institutions are not enough to improve the state of the environment in Syria.

Khozam said that one of the main focuses of the ministry should be monitoring local economic activities and making sure that they were environmentally sound.

The previous system of placing environmental work under the ministry of local administration to facilitate implementation at a local level proved to be ineffective, he said.

The new environment ministry was created by merging two main official institutions: the centre for environmental research and the general council for environmental affairs.

“Restoring the ministry of environment will help Syria meet its local and international engagements,” said Khozam, adding that protecting the environment should not be confined to a narrow local focus but rather subscribe to a more global vision.

Syria has signed several international treaties for the protection of the environment like the Kyoto protocol to fight global warming in 1996, as well as other conventions to fight desertification and protect biodiversity.

Damascus wanted to show its commitment to the international conventions it has signed regarding the environment, said Medhat Abou Khater, an engineer and environmental activist who has led a campaign for more trees to be planted.

This might be the reason behind the reopening of the ministry, he said.

“We hope that the new ministry will produce real actions and not just hollow decisions,” Abou Khater said, adding that environmental challenges were increasing drastically with the significant population boom in Syria.
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