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Cablegate: Murky Outlook for Syrian Environmental Efforts

VZCZCXYZ0000
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0691/01 2800411
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 060411Z OCT 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5411
INFO RUEHAM/AMEMBASSY AMMAN 7408
RUEHC/DEPT OF INTERIOR WASHDC

UNCLAS DAMASCUS 000691

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR NEA/RA AND OES
DEPT PLEASE PASS TO USAID AND USDA/AGR RESEARCH SERVICE
DEPT PLEASE PASS TO EPA WASHDC FOR INTERNATIONAL
INTERIOR FOR INTERNATIONAL/WASHBURNE
AMMAN FOR ESTH HUB OFFICER

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EENV ETRD EAID PGOV SY
SUBJECT: MURKY OUTLOOK FOR SYRIAN ENVIRONMENTAL EFFORTS

(U) SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. NOT FOR INTERNET DISTRIBUTION

1. (SBU) Summary: Under sweltering, sand-filled and polluted skies
-- symptomatic of Syria's environmental challenges -- Amman ESTH Hub
officer and Emboffs held environment-related August 27 meetings in
Damascus. Low environmental awareness, weak enforcement of
environmental laws and regulations, increasing air pollution, poor
water resource management, lack of a recycling framework, and poor
wildlife conservation efforts are among the many challenges facing
Syria. Signs of modest progress, however, including the recent
establishment of several environmental NGOs, increased outreach
activities with youth, and renewable energy projects on the horizon
provide some respite in an otherwise bleak environmental landscape.
End summary.

2. (SBU) Symbolic of increasing environmental permissiveness by the
Syrian government, a range of environmental NGOs, members of
academia, and UNDP representatives met with visiting Amman ESTH Hub
Officer during an Embassy-hosted dinner in Damascus. The Syrian
interlocutors voiced their desire for increased interaction with the
USG and U.S. private sector and academia in the environmental arena.
Noting that the first ever environmental NGO - the Syrian
Environmental Association (SEA) - was allowed to be registered in
2001, they highlighted the Syrian government's increasing tolerance
for environmental outreach, awareness, and even some criticism.
According to SEA, some government officials warily consider the NGOs
as a competitor and do not support nascent efforts to create a union
of environmental associations. However, the Syrian first lady has
visited SEA's offices and the adjacent botanical gardens and Syrian
President Assad has voiced his support to the SEA Chairman.

Environmental Challenges Abound
--------------------------------

3. (SBU) Some key environmental challenges facing Syria include:

-- Weak Enforcement: The environmental law came into effect in 2002
but is not enforced. The General Commission for Environmental
Affairs is considered to have a weak institutional capacity with a
staffing of just 100 people in nine offices in major cities across
the country.

-- Air Pollution: Despite having switched to unleaded gasoline in
the 1998-2002 timeframe, Damascus and other large cities suffer from
significant air pollution, mostly attributed to the use of heavy
diesel in the transportation sector. Although measured by the
government in some locations, air pollutant data is not publicly
available.

-- Water Scarcity: Like many of its neighbors, Syria also faces
water shortages, particularly in the southern part of the country.
One NGO estimated that over 6,000 illegal wells are depleting the
groundwater resources. There is no charge for agricultural use of
water despite agriculture using more than 80 percent of water
resources. The Barada River, once a mountain stream sparkling
through Damascus is now a water trickle passing through mounds of
garbage - if anyone were to follow the steps of Saint Paul and be
baptized there they would be likely to develop a severe rash.

-- Waste management: With no laws or regulations regarding
recycling, waste management does not lend itself to sound recycling
practices. Damascus generates about 1600 tons of municipal garbage
daily, but only half is recycled at a landfill for organic
fertilizer by a private sector company. SEA noted that since
recycling is unregulated, many byproducts from recycled materials
often have public health consequences and can also make it
cumbersome to develop viable downstream businesses.

-- Wildlife Conservation: There is limited expertise on wildlife
conservation in the country. While hunting was banned 13 years ago,
one NGO noted that nationals from the Gulf countries often come for
weeks/months to hunt birds and rabbits, without intervention from
the authorities. Wildlife byproducts (which might be in
contravention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species) are widely sold in the local souqs.

-- Environmental awareness: A documentary produced by the UNDP
highlights the low degree of environmental awareness in Syria - with
most people questioned not being aware of climate change or other
environmental issues facing Syria.

Environmental progress - some small steps
------------------------------------------

4. (SBU) Despite the paucity of resources and environmental
awareness, there are signs of increased environmental activism among
the estimated 25-30 environmental NGOs in Syria:

-- SEA has had success in outreach activities with youth, noting
their enthusiasm on engaging in environmental issues. The
environmental clubs started by SEA attract many children to
participate in its clean-up campaigns and tree-planting activities.
Recycling and environmental art contests held with school-children
draw many responses, some of which are prominently exhibited at the
SEA-managed botanical gardens in Damascus' old city. SEA is seeking
funding to aggressively expand this facility to include an
environmental awareness and research center, herbarium, and library
facility. Under a recent SEA grant from UNDP, a climate change
mitigation and energy conservation contest for new inventions will
be managed by SEA with prize money for the most promising
innovations;

-- As Syria struggles to meet its current burgeoning energy needs,
the expected doubling of its population in the next 30 years
portends a potential energy crisis. According to the UNDP, Syria
plans to launch pilot solar and wind energy projects in
collaboration with Germany, the EU and JICA in an attempt to
ameliorate the situation.

ICARDA Oasis in Northern Syria:
-------------------------------

5. (SBU) The USG continues to be the largest donor to the
International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
(ICARDA) based near Aleppo. Managed by roughly 80 international
professional staff, the current project portfolio includes
increasing agricultural productivity, soil research, water
conservation techniques, terrace farming, and rehabilitation of
rangelands. ICARDA boasts many accomplishments in raising
agricultural productivity while also creating research networks of
its trainees and scientists across 44 countries. ICARDA is seeking
additional funding for its recently launched Water and Livelihoods
Initiative (WLI) to develop and pilot-test integrated water and
land-use management strategies in benchmark watersheds in seven
countries. ICARDA management expressed their desire for a
coordinated program of USG assistance that could include USDA,
USAID, plus regional Department programs like MEPI. ICARDA hopes to
participate in and increase its visibility at the Oct 7-9 Cairo EST
Officers conference.

CONNELLY

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