Syria Goes Green

Increasing numbers of voluntary initiatives are emerging to tackle threats to environment.

Syria Goes Green

Increasing numbers of voluntary initiatives are emerging to tackle threats to environment.

Tuesday, 31 March, 2009
While environmental issues have traditionally received little attention in the Middle East compared with the coverage they get in the United States and western Europe, this could now be changing.

In the past two years, several grassroots conservation movements have sprung up to increase eco-awareness and teach conservation strategies to the next generation of Syrians.

“Our dream is for all of Syrian society to embrace large-scale conservation efforts, like those taking place in more developed parts of the world,” said Zaeda Sahloul, an English teacher at the Jawdat al-Hashimi secondary school in Damascus.

Sahloul set up the Green Syria Association in 2007, one of the first voluntary after-school environmental programmes in the country. Its members are students and parents who care about the environmental problems facing their country and who want to do what they can to help.

But Sahloul’s main target group is clearly the young.

“I think children will be the key to any lasting improvements. It can be difficult to change the opinions and behaviour of older people who are set in their ways,” she said.

Sahloul said she herself used to wonder how she could make a difference to the environment.

“I started by using my English class to discuss conservation issues and have my students come up with new ideas,” she explained.

She kept her students up-to-date with the latest studies about threats to the environment in the English language, she said.

Experts say Syria faces a number of environmental problems including deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, water pollution, as well as inadequate water supplies.

“Desertification, in particular, is a serious concern as temperatures rise, lands continue to erode and draughts become more frequent,” said Damascus-based scientific researcher Salah al-Deen Kharboutli.

Last year, Syria suffered from a severe drought that seriously endangered the harvest.

The Green Syria Association and other volunteer-based organisations are trying to confront these challenges and raise awareness of them.

Students at Sahloul’s school have formed various groups to take responsibility for environmentally friendly measures, such as turning off lights and collecting paper for recycling.

Although these tasks might seem small and irrelevant in a country where environmental awareness is scarce and waste-dumping is widespread, the students believe that even minimal steps can make a difference.

Adnan Ajlouni, a member of the association, said that he and his classmates have quickly started to see the results of their efforts.

“Last year, we collected half a ton of paper to recycle,” he said. “The school’s supervisor also told us that the electricity bill had gone down as a result of our [other] work.”

Early last year, the school won praise for its conservation efforts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO.

“What matters most is that reducing the consumption of water and electricity has become daily behaviour for our students,” said Sahloul.

“We also work on cleaning the school’s garden and watering the trees. My hope is that after they graduate, they will continue to adopt these efficient lifestyle choices and have a larger impact.”

Last year, Dr Jamma Adeeb formed the Syrian Environmental Protection Association – a private group that encourages pupils at schools across Damascus to promote environmental awareness by recycling paper and plastic and riding bikes instead of taking buses or driving cars.

“The aim of the association is to raise awareness among the younger generation of Syrians who will inherit this environment some day,” said Adeeb. “We want young people to learn how they can help and then take that message and spread it to others.”

The association has financed programmes which look at ways of protecting drinking water and decreasing deforestation, he said.

“Recently, we completed work on a project to plant 600 new trees around Damascus,” he added.

“We are also in the process of another initiative to help clean up the Barada river basin in Damascus.”

According to Adeeb, overgrazing, soil erosion, raw waste dumping and desertification have contributed to the contamination of the river, which in some areas is more like an open sewage canal than a river.

But education alone will not be enough to end these damaging environmental problems, said Kharboutli.

“The government should set an example,” he said. “We need laws that protect natural forests and help relocate air and water polluting industries away from homes and bodies of water. We also need to find better ways to dispose of toxic waste.”

In 2002, the government approved Environmental Law No. 50 that established a special fund to contribute toward financing national environmental projects.

Lawmakers in Damascus have also partnered with the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, which provides policy advice and also links Syria with various pilot projects aimed at improving conservation efforts.

UNDP Syria helped facilitate a European Union-funded project in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan that aims to reduce the negative impact on the environment caused by the production of olive oil without harming the growth of this sector.

Such large-scale initiatives coupled with increasing awareness among younger Syrians should put the country on the right track in the future, hopes Damascus-based judge Bassam Asaad.

“By educating our young and following through on community and national conservation projects, we’re providing a way for all members of society to participate in making the country more environmentally sound,” he said.

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