Continuing from Part I.
Almost all conflicts that take place in the Middle East are motivated by the need to secure oil interests, among others. However, oil has so many other roles to play in this ugly story.
Winter was never harder in Syria. The unprecedented cold wave is adding a lot to the suffering of people, especially the displaced. Massive efforts are being made by international donors, local NGOs and volunteers to provide winter items to people in need, such as blankets and warm clothes, however the need remains massive. In my opinion, the pre-war situation helped in creating this vulnerability.
During the past few decades, the Syrian government subsidized many life essentials as part of its socialist policies. Huge subsidies allocated to the energy sector were the basis on which the pre-war economy and subsequently social and cultural trends developed. With prices of electricity, gasoline, and diesel kept at a very low rate, small businesses flourished, leading to the creation of job opportunities, and providing consumer goods at competitive prices. The transport sector also boomed and urbanization expanded since people were now able to reside in suburbs and move back and forth to the city. It was possible back then to commute from one side of the city to the other for around 20 US cents! It’s quite common here in Syria right now to hear people say: "We were leading a great life right before the war started." The subsidies also made it financially unviable to promote or develop alternatives based on renewable energy.
A gradual lifting of the energy subsidies was started before the war and was met by great public rejection — with demands to continue maintaining subsidies and to fix prices. War conditions are also making it more difficult for the government to continue this policy — like security challenges such as blocking main roads due to military operations and attacks against energy facilities which cause long power cuts all around Syria. Our energy systems are volatile, and unprepared people are now paying a heavy price. Below are some highlights showing how fragile our systems are.
With the availability of cheap diesel taken for granted, diesel had become the default choice for home heating and water heating. Diesel stoves are efficient and easy to handle, and all houses were adapted to have them installed. But now diesel is quite difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities, and alternatives are scarce. Many people are now using firewood stoves, and as firewood prices increased around ten-fold, it’s now quite common to see people cutting even green trees to heat their homes. Natural forests are seriously suffering — especially the rare and protected species. Electricity-based alternatives are almost useless with the long power cuts that we’ve witnessed recently. Added to this reality is the fact that houses were originally poorly designed in terms of insulation and aspect to the sun, which increases their energy requirements.
As for water heating, the use of solar water heaters has been limited, even since before the war, due to their high installment cost. Displacement and security threats are now adding to this limitation.
Additionally, the purchase power of people (which was already weak before the war) is now sinking further due to many factors, including: depreciation of local currency, rising unemployment and loss of other livelihood resources, increase in all prices caused by high transportation costs combined with transportation difficulties due to security threats.
We now realize that we should have invested more on exploring and developing locally-adapted solutions to power problems, however renewable energy solutions in many cases were not able to provide a real alternative to traditional ones, either because they were more expensive or because they were not as efficient.
The story of Adra, a town to the north of Damascus, provides a good example here: Earlier in December, armed groups took over Adra in order to cut Damascus off from its northern supply lines, which provided the city with essentials such as gasoline, diesel, wheat, and cooking gas. Shortages in supply are forcing people to stand in long queues for hours to get what they need. (By the way, the story also had another dark side: when the armed militia invaded the city, they slaughtered people, burnt others alive, and are now using thousands of civilians as human shields. The tragedy has continued for weeks now. Four families I know personally are trapped there — one of them includes a lady who is expecting and her 3 year old son.)
A week ago a big warehouse for oil derivatives in Adra was targeted by a rocket. It burnt for days since the fire response service could not reach it. The next day people in Damascus saw a huge black cloud covering the city. Almost everyone now suffers from respiratory problems and asthma-like seizures.
It’s interesting to note that although the oil-based supply system is malfunctioning, people still tend to believe that this is a temporary setback that is only related to the war, and they look at the modern, consumerist lifestyle that was prevailing before the war as the ideal situation — a situation they look forward to restoring. I think part of the reason for this is that no working alternative has so far been developed and promoted at a large scale here in Syria.
It seems like this situation provides a big challenge to any permaculturist!
P.S. By the time I finished this post, the Syrian army was able to break through Adra and set thousands of civilians free. Three of the families I knew there have returned safe.