What can be done in Syria with its extreme levels of physical and social destruction? How can the international community begin to assist given the overwhelming need? How can peacebuilding and development begin under these circumstances?
Peacebuilding is considered to set the conditions necessary for eventual development. Peacebuilding is holistic in aims, focusing on creating a durable peace by addressing all root causes to the conflict. Peacebuilding practitioners focus on societal structures—physical, social, and political structures—to facilitate reconstruction of a conflict-afflicted nation.
Development is comparatively more fine-tuned to improve the livelihoods of a population. Increasingly, development agencies aim to improve human development, which incorporates healthcare, education, equality, and other social factors. Many of these goals are measured in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI).
Because Syria’s conflict has not affected the nation equitably, development and peacebuilding efforts will be complex. They cannot be easily categorized on a linear timeline with peacebuilding leading to development. Both are needed simultaneously.
In this article, I draw on data for human development and statistics on how the conflict has affected Syrian populations to make a case for where in Syria and what kind of development-oriented initiatives could most lead to a peacebuilding outcome.
Overview of Syria
Syria is a war-torn country in the Middle East bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Islamic State (ISIS) claimed Syria as the center of their Caliphate in 2014, terrorizing the people and expounding the civil war which began in 2011. The urban population is 58.5% and the total population is estimated at over 18 million. Currently, those living under or near the poverty line—the working poor at purchasing power parity (PPP) living on less than $3.10/day—is 34.8% of the population.
Syria is in the lowest tier of human development, ranked 149th out of 188 on the HDI. The civil war and violence from ISIS are significant socio-economic challenges, though even before the war, Syria was ranked with a medium HDI at 111th in the world. Few countries have experienced this degree of a sudden drop in HDI.
Although contributing factors of low development in Syria are multidimensional, all factors are exacerbated by the war.
Syria’s Situation is Complicated
ISIS is well-known for planting land mines and their destructiveness. It is just being realized though that while they gripped power, they provided services typically considered the responsibility of the state. In several cases, ISIS provided public services more efficiently than the Syrian government had before them.
This severely complicates peacebuilding efforts and damages the government’s perceived legitimacy.
Because of this, in some cases, such as healthcare and education, development in regions of Syria must be restored to pre-war conditions before it can be further improved. In other cases, such as electricity provision, development in regions of Syria must, uncannily, be restored to war-time conditions.
Where to Focus within Syria?
I conducted a country-wide analysis of various livelihood indicators to determine which governorates (provinces) of Syria could be prioritized in peacebuilding and development initiatives. Key indicators considered were categorized as:
● the population in need of humanitarian assistance,
● multidimensional poverty rankings,
● internally displaced persons,
● education and literacy statistics,
● unemployment rates,
● poverty indicators,
● percent of the population relying on agriculture and intermittent employment,
● improved drinking water and sanitation access,
● malnutrition rates.
Within these categories, 46 governorate-level statistics were found and compared. Other indicators were sought, but the lack of reliable governorate-level data required me to exclude them in the analysis. Most recent statistics were used in each available case.
When indicators were compared, the governorates of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor rose to the surface as in the most need of initiatives. For instance, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor had the highest multidimensional poverty rankings within the country in 2009.
Comparison of Indicators Across Governorates
Water and Sanitation Country-wide
Before the war, access to improved water and sanitation was as high as 87.3%, however, ISIS intentionally contaminated water sources as a war tactic. At various points in the conflict, in different places (including all major cities), and by both ISIS and the government, access to potable water was restricted or cut off. While household level studies are yet to be updated, nongovernmental organizations and UNICEF have noted that half of the population most in need of water and sanitation are children.
Water and Sanitation in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor
Water system improvement is critical for healthcare and livelihoods. Water contamination in the Euphrates River has reportedly increased levels of typhoid and hepatitis A in Syria. 75% of the 2,600 cases of typhoid from January-July of 2014 were in Deir ez-Zor governorate. Much of the nation’s water contamination seems to have come from when the ISIS controlled the Tabqa Dam, upstream from Raqqa, beginning in 2013. Conflict in Raqqa has also damaged governorate water systems, leaving communities to rely on boreholes and modifying their hygiene practices to accommodate for reduced water volume and quality. Unlike other governorates, Raqqa’s irrigation system was centralized, leaving Raqqa particularly vulnerable to the damaged infrastructure.
Agriculture and Food Security Country-wide
Nongovernmental and governmental organizations are assessing what impacts the war has had on the agricultural sector. From preliminary reports it appears that ISIS sustained and possibly even improved agricultural production. However, continued production potentially came at the cost of increased ethnic division because ISIS stole land from non-Sunni populations and sold it to Sunnis. These reports also indicate that Shi’a or Kurds have returned to agricultural lands to find damaged canals and broken equipment. Determining land equitable and proper land ownership will be a key challenge in long-term agricultural production.
Agriculture and Food Security in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor
Both governorates rely on the agricultural industry for food and livelihood security. Before the war, 62.3% of Deir ez-Zor’s workforce and 52.2% of Raqqa’s was employed in agriculture. Economic security was low in the governorates. Total unemployment in Deir ez-Zor in 2012 was 23.5% (the second highest rate in the country) and for Raqqa it was 21.9%.
The nation increasingly relies on irrigated agricultural land because of prolonged droughts and irregular precipitation. Since the war, most governorates have increased their irrigated areas, but because of deteriorated and damaged irrigation systems, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor have decreased irrigated areas—Raqqa from 110,000 hectares in 2015 to 92,000 in 2017 and Deir ez-Zor from 70,000 to 65,000 respectively.
Health and Nutrition
Before the conflict, access to healthcare was adequate. Severely or moderately undernourished children stood at 9.7%. The majority, 87.7%, of children were fully immunized. Recently, the infant mortality rate was reported as low as 14.8 deaths/thousand live births, though the maternal mortality ratio measured higher, at 68 deaths/thousand live births.
However, rates of malnutrition were staggering in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. Before the war, the governorates ranked first and second in the nation for highest rates of chronic and acute malnutrition. Raqqa also ranked second and Deir ez-Zor third for highest stunting rates in the country in 2006, with rates that are nearly unbelievable (see table below). Wasting rates in Deir ez-Zor were the highest in the country and Raqqa’s were also dangerously among the highest nationally. All this is despite the region being among the highest agricultural producing governorates in the country.
Percentages of Malnutrition Rates Among Under-five Children
Healthcare During the War
With large swaths of the country at war, healthcare facilities operated at high capacity and in dire circumstances. Aid workers increasingly consider that hospitals and medical professionals are intentionally targeted.
By 2013, over 15,000 of Syria’s 30,000 doctors had fled the country. 5 of the 7 main health care centers in Raqqa were operating at limited capacity by 2014, when only 13 (of formerly 23) primary health centers remained open. Raqqa National Hospital, the only medical facility with dialysis services in Raqqa governorate, was severely damaged in 2014 and by 2017 provided no services. By that time, public health systems in Deir ez-Zor were operating at 5% of required capacity with chronically short staff and supplies.
Recommendations for NGOs and Others
To address these challenges, partnering NGOs and governments will need to be multidimensional and multi-sector in their activities. Cross-cutting issues to be addressed include out-migration, violence and personal safety, conflict sensitivity, drought and climate change, and participation in government.
Improved Food Security
One of the first needs is improved food security which can come from the ability to resume agricultural production. Development organizations and national partners could work with demining groups to identify what agricultural lands are already safe for resumed production. They could also link farmers with local authorities to select and prioritize additional demining locations.
NGOs may also consider food for work programs to repair irrigation systems and canals. They could also conduct trainings simultaneously on ethno-religious cooperation, conflict sensitivity, and the creation of a cooperative regional irrigation system. Such an initiative would target both the infrastructural and social needs of the governorates.
Another need, with great potential, is increased availability of medical personnel and access to healthcare. Organizations which work with refugees and internally displaced persons should identify and work with the 15,000 Syrian medical personnel who fled to determine what conditions would best quicken their return. Would they require safe houses near or within hospitals, for instance? Or could convoys be organized to facilitate their return?
NGOs and governmental partners should additionally create programs to improve the damaged medical facilities of the governorates. They could again utilize food for work programs to repair the physical infrastructure and partner with medical-specific organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, for provisions of medical equipment.
Again, development agencies could simultaneously aim to address long-standing social issues in Syria while aiming to increase access to trained medical personnel. For instance, they could engage in community education on the importance of women and caregivers being medically trained and provide information on how they can seek higher education in healthcare. Some organizations may even consider gathering resources to provide EMT training to women and caregivers currently in refugee or internally displaced persons camps of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
Improved Water and Sanitation Access
Necessary for both livelihoods and healthcare is improved water access for consumption and agriculture. Governmental and nongovernmental partners in Syria’s development and peacebuilding processes should consider how they can contribute to increased access to decontaminated or otherwise potable water on the household level. They could also train community members on how to test water quality in their area.
Water quality levels necessary for agricultural lands need not be as high as for household consumption. Nonetheless, organizations should also work with farmers and water engineers to identify decontamination methods appropriate for irrigation. For instance, NGOs could train farmers on how to test irrigable waters for pH, total soluble salts, sodium hazard (SAR), and toxic ions.
In post-conflict, development efforts can be an avenue to restore the damaged social trust among populations. Likewise, peacebuilding efforts can and should be incorporated into reconstruction and development initiatives.
Improving food security, healthcare, and access to water and sanitation in these recommended ways will not provide an elusive magical solution. Furthermore, the need for these things must be reevaluated with local and returning Syrians in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. The data simply indicates that these are among the most severe of needs within the least developed of the governorates of Syria. Prioritizing these sectors can thus uniquely provide needed development and peacebuilding services.
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