Migrant Lives

How War Is Redrawing Syria’s Demographics Map Forever

Syrians fleeing Aleppo on Feb. 5
Syrians fleeing Aleppo on Feb. 5
Etienne Dubuis

GENEVA â€" War is reshaping Syria, causing massive displacements of populations that, even more than the rising casualty numbers, have shifted the roles played by the country's principal ethnic and religious communities.

Some groups have emerged strengthened, others weakened, now and perhaps forever. These demographic gains and losses will carry more weight in the long term in the region than any military victory or defeat.

The demographic dimension of the conflict is even more central as it falls within a long history of tensions among ethnic and religious groups, particularly between the overwhelming Arab Sunni majority and the smaller Arab Alawite minority, which was long oppressed before achieving power in the 1960s.

The imbalance between the demographic reality and the political situation had worsened since the 1980s, with a growing gap between the fertility rates of the two communities, notes Youssef Courbage, research director of the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED), in Paris.

Better treated by the regime, the Alawite now have a fertility rate of slightly more than two children per woman, which is close to European averages. The less favored Sunni have kept a much higher rate of five children per woman, which is typical of precarious socioeconomic conditions, especially in terms of access to health care and education.

Things, however, are not so clear-cut. The Sunni are by no means a homogenous majority: Its representatives in the urban upper classes, for example, have had a fertility rate that is similar to the Alawite elites. Still, the overall demographic weight of the Sunni in Syrian society has made the Alawite stranglehold on power more and more incongruous, and a challenge to the political status quo more and more inevitable.

"The Arab Spring was not the same in Syria as it was in Tunisia or Egypt," says Courbage. "From the start it was an attempt to restore balance between the different communities."

This explains why the Sunni rose up and the Alawite were so destabilized by their demands. Five years of war later, the problem remains unsolved. The context, however, has changed due to a shift in the balance of power between the communities.

The Alawite camp is weakened. Before the war, it was already suffering from its falling fertility rate. This prevented it from having as many soldiers as would it have liked and reinforced the proportion of Sunni in the army. The conflict has complicated matters even more, killing some 250,000 overall, including including 90,000 regime soldiers and 80,000 rebels. The Alawite camp, which ruled over 21.5 million Syrians five years ago, now controls just 10 million, or 63% of the 16 million people still in the country.

At the same time, Sunni Arabs have also been strongly affected. "They are the ones the regime has bombed the most," says Fabrice Balance, a geography professor at the University of Lyon 2 and a guest researcher at the Washington Institute. "They also form the crushing majority of refugees fleeing the country."

The regular army is even said to have reduced its presence on the Jordan border in order to facilitate the departure of these "undesirables" and reduce their influence in the Syrian equation.

Millions on the move

Migration abroad represents a massive phenomenon, as one-fourth of Syria's population â€" 5.3 million people out of 21.5 million â€" fled between 2011 and 2015. With this, the proportion of Alawite increased from 10% to 13% and the Arab Sunni decreased, 64% to 61%. The changes are significant, though not enough to shift the power balance between the two groups. The only group whose fate has been completely transformed by exile is the Christian community, whose proportion fell from 5% to 3% in the same period.

The conflict has also caused significant internal displacement. Out of the 16 million Syrians who are still in the country, some 6.5 million have been uprooted. The result has been a redrawing of the "community map."

Many are guided simply by the logic of survival. They leave war zones in search of safer areas, ideally places that will remain peaceful for a long time. "This has benefitted the most stable region of the country, that is to say government territory," Balanche explains. "About three quarters of the displaced went there, including, paradoxically, Sunni Arabs who were bombed by the regime."

Others seek out places where they know people, which favors the regrouping of people inside their own communities. This contributes to the creation of more ethnically or religiously homogenous areas. Then there are those who seek to escape a specific oppression: civilian populations fleeing efforts by certain parties of the conflict, such as ISIS or other jihadist groups, to exert ethnic or religious domination.

A reorganizing is underway. Religious minorities (Alawite, Christians and Druse) that represent just 22% of Syria's total population are now 41% of the population in the territory controlled by the regime in Damascus. The area controlled by Kurdish militias, in the north of the country, attracts a lot more displaced Kurds than displaced Arabs. And regions that have fallen under the control of jihadist groups are becoming essentially Sunni areas.

Does this mean the country is being divided into three ethnically or religiously homogenous regions? Fabrice Balanche doubts it, noting that the country â€" especially the area dominated by the Damascus government â€" is too diverse for that to be true. Balanche thinks the regime is less concerned about creating a purely Alawite stronghold than it is about benefitting from the divisions to prevail: a goal it intends to fulfill by setting the Sunni against each other.

The exile of several million Syrians, in the meantime, has not only has a profound affect on Syria, but also on two neighboring countries: Jordan and Lebanon.

In Jordan, the influx of some 600,000 Syrians after the arrival of 1 million Iraqis has distinctly reduced the proportion of Palestinians in the population. The impact on Lebanon, where some 1.5 million Syrians have fled, doubling the side of the Sunni community there, is even more profound. Syrians now represents one-quarter of Lebanon's entire population. The local Shia, outnumbered, are already regretting the role inadvertently played in this influx by backing the Alawite regime.

"The arrival of 100,000 Palestinians in 1948 caused lots of problems for Lebanon, including the start of a 15-year war," Youssef Courbage recalls. "The arrival of two million Syrians threatens to set alight a country that is still a powder keg."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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