Desperate Syrians in eastern Ghouta had to come up with creative ways to meet basic needs and avoid starvation when regime forces in 2013 imposed a crippling siege on them.
Omar Mubarak, an English teacher in the region's Hawsh al-Dawahira village, built a biogas project that helped provide enough clean water to his community.
Now in Idlib province, Mubarak hopes his work can become a blueprint for similar environmentally friendly projects in order to salvage the remains of the shattered country and empower local communities.
"We came up with a project that allows the local community to use whatever materials they have to use in producing a source of fuel that could sustain the villagers and allow them to secure some of their basic needs. This method can be used after the war to enable people to produce their own fuel," said Mubarak, who designed and supervised the biogas project.
Blockade forces innovation
The idea for the project came up after the Syrian government in 2013 imposed a military blockade on eastern Ghouta, 10 kilometers east of Damascus, to drive out Sunni rebels. Construction didn't start until 2015.
"During the siege, the government cut off all electricity, and this stopped the water plant in the village from working. So we built this project as a means for survival under the besiegement," Mubarak said, adding that about 30 people from Hawsh al-Dawahira had to work painstakingly for three months to complete the biogas digester system and circumvent a fuel shortage.
Despite the steep hurdles of securing materials and identifying the best design, the village was finally able to produce its own biofuel in 2015.
More than 3,000 villagers were amazed when water gushed again from faucets in their homes. The project pumped water every day for three hours, sparing residents from having to stand in long lines to get water from wells.
Biogas is a type of biofuel produced by the anaerobic decomposition or thermochemical conversion of biomass; in other words, it is the degradation of natural organic matter such as manure and agricultural waste. It offers a clean and cost-saving alternative to fossil fuel energy, according to Power Technology magazine.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development says this method is gaining popularity around the world, particularly in rural communities in Africa.
The United Nations estimates that the brutal 10-year civil war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced 13 million of the country's citizens from their homes.
In areas where fighting and blockades continued for months, civilians had to generate electricity using basic methods such as turning plastic waste into fuel. In Idlib, the major remaining stronghold of Sunni rebels, residents have also embraced solar panels.
"Solar panels, big and small, old and new, are seemingly everywhere," The New York Times reported this month.
Mubarak considers the change, even if caused by war, an opportunity for postwar Syria to invest more in renewable and environmentally friendly energy.
"Perhaps this project can be actualized when the war ends," added Mubarak.
In 2018, Mubarak had to flee with his wife and son to Idlib when government forces took over eastern Ghouta. They did so with thousands of other people after the Syrian government and its backer Russia agreed to allow the evacuation of besieged rebels with their families to the north.
He said his biogas digest project operated until August 2016, when most of the Hawsh al-Dawahira residents had to flee clashes between rebel groups and Syrian government forces that included government airstrikes.
"This project was a dream, and we feel like this dream has been taken from us," Mubarak said.
Eastern Ghouta, part of a larger agricultural area surrounding Damascus, called Ghouta, was controlled by the anti-Syrian government rebel groups known as Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam. The U.N. estimates it was home to more than 400,000 civilians. Today, civilians number about 180,000, according to the Middle East Institute.
According to the Netherlands-based PAX peace organization, prolonged heavy fighting in Syrian populated areas has likely resulted in pockets of contamination from toxic munitions. It warned that civilians remaining in or returning to these areas could be at risk of exposure to the harmful materials.
"Nationally, governmental capacity to deal with the environmental consequences of the ongoing war is largely absent. And this does not bode well for the longer-term security and safety of those civilians remaining in or returning to Syria," it concluded.
In northeastern Syria, the Islamic State group had reportedly installed hundreds of makeshift oil refineries to generate profit. These refineries produced thick clouds of black smoke and left toxic byproducts that contributed to soil and water contamination.
Some experts see an opportunity in postwar Syria to implement more environmentally friendly projects to not only help restore its ecosystem but also empower local communities.
"Syria has a very high potential in developing such projects in different parts of the country after the war," said Laith al-Moghrabi, a lead ecologist for the private consultancy Fieldfare Ecology in Jordan.
Al-Moghrabi said there are not enough data to evaluate the degree of damage to the country's environment from the war in general. However, he said, the conflict has been devastating for its ecosystem — from ongoing illegal logging, to massive fires scorching Syria's forests in the west, to illegal wildlife trade.
Despite the damage Syria has endured since the start of the conflict in 2011, al-Moghrabi remains optimistic about its recovery and resilience.
"Syria is an area that is waiting to be studied. From an archaeological perspective it's the cradle of civilization," he said.