Syrian oil refineries polluting the Mediterranean

Syrian oil refineries polluting the Mediterranean, report reveals
3 min read
19 October, 2021
The report warns that if Syrian oil infrastructure is not fixed 'the next environmental catastrophe is likely lurking around the corner'.
Continual spills and wastewater discharges from the Baniyas area threatens wildlife in the Mediterranean [Getty]

Syria's coastal oil refineries pose a critical danger to the Mediterranean, a new report has revealed, documenting consistent leakages of oil and other pollutants into the waters.

PAX, a Dutch peace-making organisation, conducted satellite analysis of the Baniyas port on Syria's northern coast over a two-year period between June 2019 and September 2021.

The analysis used remote sensing software to track oil spills and other contamination events in the area.

It found that there was "an increase of oil and wastewater spills" in the area which "posed risks to public health and livelihoods".

Baniyas port is home to an oil refinery, power plants, and off-shore oil pipelines. It has been used to receive shipments of Iranian oil since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict nearly a decade ago.

Aging infrastructure, negligence, and the improper disposal of industrial waste and oil products have all caused pollution that have likely impacted the local ecosystem, the report concluded.

Exposure to contaminated seawater can pose "health risks" for humans, while the "accumulation of heavy metals in the marine environment" can have an effect on humans who consume local fish.

In 2007, before the outbreak of conflict in Syria, the EU called Baniyas "a most critical pollution hotspot".

The situation has worsened since 2011, when the Syrian uprising and conflict began. Poor security and weak governance have all led to increased pollution in the area, it is reported.

In 2019, an off-shore pipeline was blown up by unknown assailants, leading to one of the largest oil spills in the area in the last two years, with the slick spreading across 30-kilometres of waters.

Local media was filled with pictures of dead fish and tar-covered birds on the beaches of the nearby cities of Latakia and Tartous. Notably, the leak occurred directly adjacent to local fisheries.

Heavy fuel oil leaked from a Baniyas power plant in the most recent oil spill on 23 August. The spill gained international media attention after the slick drifted to the Cypriot and Turkish coasts.

An analysis of an August 23 oil spill off the coast of Syria.
Over 10,000 tons of oil leaked out of a Baniyas power plant on August 23, stretching to the Cypriot and Turkish coasts. [PAX/Landsat 8/Sentinel 1 & 2/HumData]

Lax environmental practices also play a role, as the area's powerplants discharge wastewater and other by-products directly into the Mediterranean Sea. The discharges contain "a range of heavy metals and other pollutants, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury" according to the report.

The Mediterranean is rich in biodiversity and home to over 17,000 marine species. Up to 30 percent of these species are only found in the Mediterranean Sea, making the area all the more important to global conservation efforts.

Continual spills and wastewater discharge from the Baniyas area threatens that biodiversity, and threatens "the possibility of the disappearance of entire species” in the area, the PAX report said.

The Syrian regime’s capacity to rehabilitate the Baniyas area’s infrastructure is limited, given the woeful state of its finances.

International sanctions on the Assad regime also make it difficult for any foreign investment into Syria's oil and gas sector, while Russia and Iran - key regime allies - have been unable or unwilling to fix Baniyas' port infrastructure.

The PAX report warns that given the delipidated state of Baniyas’ infrastructure, “the next environmental catastrophe is likely lurking around the corner.”

Such a scenario "poses serious long term public health and environmental risks that could affect… the lives and livelihoods of those living there for decades to come".