By Toby Pitts-Tucker

A cement factory under construction at Jebel Kohla, opposite the popular Bagdad Café on the Damascus-Palmyra highway, is drawing fire for blighting both the environment and the region’s tourism industry.

Construction at the factory, which is being built by United Arab Cement (UAC), began in March. It is located off the highway at Jebel Kohla, a prominent relief reaching 1,400m in height. Critics say the development, which will also include apartments for housing some 2,500 workers and their families, a school, hospital and power plant, is a huge setback for one of the most beautiful areas in Syria’s badia and question why an alternative site could not have been found.

“This factory will irreversibly destroy the beauty and fine desert scenery of the area,” Gianluca Serra, a biodiversity expert, said. “The desert in this area is wild, natural and unexplored. The biodiversity potential of this area seems high and it would be ideal for the establishment of a protected area for recreational purposes and also for the reintroduction of gazelles.”

A unique environment

When Serra arrived in Palmyra to assess the region’s flora and fauna in the early 2000s, he was told that there was very little left to preserve. Since then, he and his team of researchers have identified more than 306 species of vertebrates, 31 species of invertebrates and 90 species of plant in the Talila Protected Area alone, a nature reserve established south-east of Palmyra. It would be a tragedy then, says Serra, for a similar area such as Jebel Kohla to be destroyed by an industrial development before it has even had the chance to be fully assessed.

“Underlying this issue is the assumption that the badia is an empty space, ripe for exploitation,” he said. “The preservation of the badia, for ecological as well as aesthetic reasons, does not seem to be considered important.”

Mwaffak Chikhali, general manager of Earth Link & Advanced Resources Development (ELARD), a private environmental consultancy firm based in Damascus, shares a similar view.

“Many see this area as a desert and, therefore, assume that there is nothing sensitive in the area,” he said.

Critics of the factory’s location – opposite the Bagdad Café, a popular stop-off point for tourists on their way to Palmyra – say it will also adversely affect the region’s tourism industry. The Syrian government has singled out the Palmyra region as a strategic area for developing tourism over the next 10 to 15 years. Building factories on the road to Palmyra does not seem to be consistent with this aim, says Nashaat Sanadiki, former chairman of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Tourism.

“The construction of factories en route to Palmyra is appalling and obviously damaging to the main tourist artery of Syria,” Sanadiki said. “A large part of the problem is a general lack of coordination between ministries.”

Jobs and development

Supporters of the factory, which will produce 2m tonnes of cement annually, point to the economic benefits the development will bring to a region which is one of the poorest in the country.

“The factory itself will provide 2,500 full-time jobs and hundreds more workers, engineers, surveyors and builders will be involved with the project,” Muhammad Aaloosh, deputy to the head of the administrative council at the UAC, said. “In addition, the project will contribute some USD 500m [SYP 23bn] to the national economy.”

The factory’s location was chosen for its access to raw materials needed in cement production, the availability of water and the suitability of the site. The fact that Jebel Kohla is not located near any heavily populated areas was also a major factor in approving the site. The government, it seems, is keen not to repeat mistakes made with the development of a cement factory in Tartous which has, according to a 2003 UNDP environmental action plan, given many local residents respiratory illnesses and severely damaged the vegetation, both agricultural and natural, in the area.

“From a purely economical point of view, this [Palmyra] project makes sense,” one geologist working in Syria who preferred to remain anonymous said. “Jebel Kohla has an unusual layering of limestone on the bottom and basalt on the top, ideal for cement production.”

The geologist added, however: “This project will harm one of the few untouched areas in the Syrian badia and scupper any chances for sound tourism in the area.”

Environmental impact assessments

The UAC submitted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the government which, after reviewing the report, concluded that the harm to the environment would be negligible and offset by the benefits the factory would bring. Mahmoud Fatahma, who conducted the EIA on behalf of the UAC, said the factory will make use of the latest technology which will limit its impact on the surrounding environment and cut down on its water consumption. The development is also subject to a number of environmental restrictions which aim to ensure it operates according to high environmental standards. Explosives will be used sparingly, dust emissions will be reduced using static electricity filters, wastewater will be reused and the bulk of the complex, says Fatahma, will not be visible from the Damascus-Palmyra highway.

“Places like Jebel Kohla are suitable for cement factories because they are far from residential areas,” he said. “In terms of flora, the badia normally just has thorny shrubs. Fauna is limited to reptiles such as lizards, snakes and tortoises and some larger mammals, which are rarer. The badia is quite big. There are better places for tourism than this site.”

The decision to press ahead with the factory has also seen critics question the framework under which environmental impact assessments are carried out. Following the introduction of Environmental Law No. 50 in 2002, development projects such as the one at Jebel Kohla are required to submit an EIA to the government.

Yet critics point to a number of flaws in the process. Prime among these is a lack of qualified human resources. A report complied for the Delegation of the European Commission to Syria last year found that there are “few environmental consulting firms in Syria which are capable of conducting full EIAs according to national and international standards”.

The report also found that strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) are yet to be introduced into Syria. EIAs are generally carried out near the end of the decision-making process for a project, with an emphasis on mitigating and minimising impacts. SEAs, on the other hand, are more proactive and take place at the beginning of the decision-making process, providing a broader overview of a project with the aim of preventing negative impacts.