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Sweet poison: In Hama, a sugar factory resumes work and a river’s respite ends

HAMA — In late July, the regime-owned Tal Salhab sugar factory in the Hama countryside resumed production and the Orontes River’s eight-year respite from the plant’s pollutants came to an end, with disastrous consequences for local fish populations. 

Nearly three months later, the plant’s seasonal production has waned, but the river has not recovered “although water is flowing,” fisherman Mustafa Abu Basel told Syria Direct.

Abu Basel, who lives in the displacement camps in the Idlib countryside city of Darkoush, said before late July, he could catch up to 50 kilograms of fish a day downstream from the factory. Today, his daily catch is less than five kilograms, “only eels,” he said. 

Abu Basel has supported his family by fishing the Orontes River—the northwards-flowing waterway that runs from Lebanon, up through western Syria and into Turkey—for 13 years. But in late July and August, he—like other fishermen—was shocked by the mass death of fish in the river, which he estimated at “more than 90 percent.” 

Signs that the animals that live in the Orontes River, particularly fish, were being impacted by waste produced by the Tal Salhab sugar factory began to appear as soon as it resumed operation in July after an eight-year pause, several local sources told Syria Direct

Abu Basel’s family is one of around 130 families in the Sahl al-Ghab region of the northern Hama countryside—controlled by opposition factions and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—that rely on fishing as a “sole source of income,” he said. Because they are downstream from the Tal Salhab sugar factory, pollution has taken a heavy toll. 

Destroying livelihoods

Seven years ago, the fishing trade in the Orontes River saw a resurgence after Syrian regime and Russian forces withdrew from the al-Ziyara district of northern Sahl al-Ghab. The opposition-controlled part of the fertile plain region became a destination for fishermen, who travel long distances to reach it.

Fishing areas are still close to the positions of regime forces, but fishermen risk their lives to reach the river banks—traversing rough roads in dry waterbeds, or moving under cover of darkness to avoid being targeted. 

Regime forces stationed two kilometers away from the river have killed a number of fishermen over the past several years, fisherman Ahmad al-Marai told Syria Direct. Still, “the abundance and diversity of fish provides a decent living for fishermen, which pushes us to risk our lives,” he said. 

But when the Tal Salhab sugar factory resumed work and began to release waste into the Orontes this past July and August, “the river waters began to throw dead fish onto the banks, and our nets no longer filled with fish and other creatures that died,” he said. “We didn’t know why, at the time.” 

Many types of fish live in the Orontes River, including perch, shabout, carp, mullet, catfish and eels, in addition to other river creatures such as frogs, crabs and water snakes, Professor Mustafa (a pseudonym), an animal expert at Aleppo University, told Syria Direct. He requested anonymity for security reasons. 

When the Tal Salhab sugar factory stopped production in 2014, and waste stopped flowing into the Orontes, the river grew “rich with living creatures, a fertile environment for fish reproduction,” Mustafa said. But this past summer, “throwing the Tal Salhab factory waste into it again killed creatures in it, destroying the spawning fish essential to the fish stock in the river in the Sahl al-Ghab region, which impacts the abundance of fish, their weight and diversity,” he added. 

Orontes River pollution is not new. Since the 1980s, the sugar factory management has “drained the waste resulting from washing the sugar beets, used to produce sugar, into the Orontes,” said veterinarian Khaled Dergham. With the factory restarting its work, river life is once more at risk.

“The factory waste contains chemicals and oils,” Dergham said, which together become “toxic substances, and form a layer floating on the surface of the water. This layer reduces oxygen in the river,” which “suffocates and poisons huge numbers of living creatures.” 

Sugar plant waste also contains “high concentrations of chloride, nitrate, magnesium, calcium and sulfates,” Mustafa explained. These substances “change the temperature, pH and oxygen levels” of the water, which “disrupts biological processes and basic physical environments for river life.” As a result, “the nutrients fish need sharply decrease, which threatens aquatic life and the reproduction processes of fish and river creatures overall.” 

Health hazard

In early August, a number of residents in regime-controlled towns close to the Tal Salhab sugar factory—such as Tal al-Titen and Tal al-Ghar—posted videos online showing polluted water and large numbers of dead fish. They blamed the deaths on the sugar factory. 

In late July, the pro-regime newspaper al-Watan conveyed complaints by the area’s residents to the General Authority for the Management and Development of al-Ghab. In response, the General Authority’s Director of Animal Resources, Mustafa Alawi, told the newspaper he inspected “drain B branching off of the Orontes at Tal al-Ghar and Tal al-Titen” and found that fish and crabs had died, possibly due to pollution.

But Rami Issa, the director of the Tal Salhab sugar factory, told the newspaper he was surprised at what he described as “the campaign against the factory.” He said byproducts are diverted “to dirt ponds on the company’s land, are isolated every year and there is sanitation.” He added that “there are those who do not want the factory to operate and produce, and they are doing everything they can to ensure that.” 

But Ahmad al-Ahmad (a pseudonym), who previously worked at the similar Jisr al-Shughour sugar factory, told Syria Direct that draining waste into the Orontes was a systematic process, and was done at the factory where he worked as well. The Jisr al-Shughour factory—since destroyed during the war—also produced waste during July and August, the sugar beet season, he said. 

The waste produced during sugar production releases unpleasant odors every year, driving dozens of nearby residents to “leave their homes at night to escape the smells,” according to Rifaat Kaid, who is from the opposition-held village of al-Qarqour on the Orontes River in Sahl al-Ghab. 

“These smells would cause some people to faint, especially at night, when they stink badly,” Kaid said. Even so, “the Orontes Basin Agricultural Center, located on the eastern bank of the river was silent, even though it is responsible for the river, its protection and regulating irrigation water.” 

A poisoned history

In 1978, the Syrian government issued Decree No. 1191, establishing the Tal Salhab sugar factory near the Hama town of Salhab. The factory fell under the Ministry of Industry, with a processing capacity of up to 4,000 tons of sugar beets per day, depending on the yield of the Sahl al-Ghab area’s fertile plains.

Before 1981, the year the Tal Salhab factory started operating, people in Sahl al-Ghab grew sugar beets as fodder for their herds of cattle. But when the factory opened, the prices it offered for beets were better than using them for feed, which helped support the local economy and farmers’ livelihoods, according to agricultural engineer Musa al-Azawi. 

But in 2014, the factory stopped working because of low agricultural production levels, and remained shuttered for eight years. That year, Damascus set the purchase price for one ton of sugar beets at SYP 17,000 ($50 according to the parallel market exchange rate of SYP 290 to the dollar at the time). This price “didn’t cover the costs and expenses of growing,” farmer Majed Asaf al-Masoud, who is from the Sahl al-Ghab area, told Syria Direct. With no financial incentive, farmers stopped growing beets. 

When the Tal Salhab factory resumed production this year, it set the purchase price for one ton of sugar beets at SYP 400,000 ($82 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 4,875 to the dollar). 

A temporary recovery

For the fish in the Orontes River, 2014 was a turning point. When the Tal Salhab factory closed its doors after 33 years of production, the river bounced back, its waters becoming a fertile environment for the reproduction of fish and other aquatic life, multiple fishermen told Syria Direct. 

“The period the factory was shut down saw a fishing boom for [professional] fishermen and hobbyists, especially for carp and eels,” according to Fadi al-Asmar, a fisherman from Sahl al-Ghab. Before 2014, he made around $3 a day fishing the Orontes, but from 2017 onwards he made an average of $10 a day. “It’s an ideal income for fishermen in the area,” he said. 

With the factory shut down, the nearby fish population had a chance to reproduce and grow in size. “The sugar factory waste and the toxins it contained were killing the fish and preventing them from reproducing and growing for a two-month period every year, in July and August,” agricultural engineer and fish expert Rami al-Hassan said. 

In years when the factory was operational, the river “made up for the loss of fish with those coming from Homs after August,” when the sugar beet season was over, Hassan added. 

‘Ink on paper’

Rami al-Ali worked at the Tal Salhab sugar factory from 1995 to 2008. During that time, he only saw five visits by environmental delegations to examine the factory, he told Syria Direct

During his time at the factory, “the waste was emptied into the river every year, and there are no special channels for draining the waste from washing beets and the cooking process, to which chemicals are added,” al-Ali said. “The only outlet pours into the Orontes River,” he added, and the waste removal process was done “in front of the environment committee, without [them] lifting a finger.” 

Engineer Zakaria Arnous, the former head of a local administrative council in Hama province, explained that identifying the problem is not the issue. “Reports, circulars and books arrive from the Ministry of Environment to the official departments, but they’re just ink on paper, in a system that pursues a security approach, with the spread of nepotism.” 

Environmental crisis appears deep-rooted in Syria, as violations against the natural world still “receive little attention, be it at the official level or individual level,” said environmental activist Zaher Hashem. Legislation to curb environmental pollution is not enough, he added, because “the laws have not reached the level of effective environmental control.” 

Article 18 of Law 49 of 2004, Syria’s Law on Public Hygiene and the Aesthetics of Administrative Units, prohibits “dumping waste oils, greases and similar liquid substances of all kinds in containers, bodies of water, public sewers, rivers, waterways and their vicinity.” Article 27 of the same law prohibits “diverting brackish water into riverbeds, lakes and seas,” and punishes violations with an SYP 300-SYP 1,000 fine ($0.60-$0.20). 

On top of the fact that “the penalties are not deterrent, corruption and administrative neglect in the ministries and the judiciary make room for more violations against the environment,” Hashem told Syria Direct. “The absence of self-control, environmental consciousness and environmental education among civilians” is another factor in what he considered society’s lack of awareness about dangers to the environment. 

Environmental associations and organizations are also absent due to restrictions imposed by the regime—itself a source of water pollution—on establishing or belonging to independent organizations, Hashem said. Even if they existed, they would not be able to “monitor the work of governmental institutions and compel them to protect the environment,” he added. 

This year’s sugar beet season has ended, and discussion of the Tal Salhab factory’s waste has largely faded from the headlines. But the river remembers. Temporarily pausing the flow of pollutants “doesn’t mean the river recovered from these residues,” veterinarian Dergham said. Continuing to dispose of waste in the Orontes River in future years “threatens the future of the fish in the river over the long term, and will have catastrophic results in the future.”


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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