Part 1: How Drought and Architecture Triggered the Syrian Revolution
The western countries attack on Syria's government is seven years late! Seven years of the Assad regime getting away with chemical attack after another, with a death toll that the UN no longer could keep up with (470,000 was last recorded in 2016), with seven year old children only knowing war, with utter devastation of the country, with Syrians tortured, killed, displaced, traumatized, honestly there are no more words left in the dictionary to describe the holocaust of Syria.
However, has it been seven years?
It’s been 47 years of the Assad regime depriving the country of basic human rights, of instilling fear, of secretly detaining and torturing Syrian citizens. Since the inception of the “Arab Spring” we may have thought the children were inspired by it but various provocative economic, agricultural, and built environment factors enticed the children to do so.
Exactly a year ago I was working on my thesis, gathering research, searching for past problems, implementing ideas, and measuring the output to design a sustainable building model in Syria. While taking a 152 page thesis project may not be easy, Part 1 lists an abridged version of what those problems were.
Insecurity in food, water, and climate brought fragility to the Syrian state and population due to governance deficiencies. Beginning with the three-year drought (from 2007-2010), which may have seemed inevitable due to climate change, was nevertheless escalated by the Assad regime’s subsidized water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton farming, which “caused 60% of the water to be wasted.”
Thousands of rural Syrian residents were forced to compete for underground water or move to major cities - like Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, etc. where urban residents were already having their own water scarcity problems. However, there are ways to mitigate this problem.
Climatologists are finding that the amount of rainfall is reliant on the amount of forest. In order for this to happen in a desert, a series of drought tolerant plants need to be planted in patches to drive cooler humid air from surrounding forests.
A project conducted in Jordan by Geoff Lawtone, a pioneer in permaculture, shows fascinating results in greening the dessert and expanding the ecosystem.
In addition to the stresses of water scarcity, farmers had been building their houses using modern building techniques that were expensive and infeasible. Building their houses required reinforced concrete, steel beams, and cement block modules. These materials were unavailable directly in Syria, and had to be imported. Imported steel was the most expensive commodity amounting to 45% of the structure’s cost. A farmer's income isn't sufficient enough as "the government is paying an inflated price for an imported item and low-income dwellers are trapped in a high-debt poor housing long term situation."
As these issues were occurring in the rural outskirts of cities, urban centers had their own architectural problems. Marwa Al-Sabouni, a Syrian Architect, explains “brutal unfinished concrete blocks, aesthetic devastation and divisive communities that zoned communities by class, creed, or affluence,” had brought state fragility to Syria. The government created a master plan to rebuild Homs, which recreated problems of the past. Those problems included an industrial modernized architecture influenced by western invasions, which is unsuitable and detracts from Syria’s heritage and culture. Design should be both inclusive and intuitive to its surroundings.
“We can learn to rebuild in another way, how to create an architecture that doesn’t contribute to the practical and economic aspects of people’s lives, but also to their social, spiritual, and psychological needs” Marwa Al-Sabouni
Some takeaways to learn from Syria's past architectural techniques to be applied in a modern innovative context:
- Courtyards, domes, and windows for cross ventilation
- Wind towers
- Thick bearing walls
- Craftsmanship includes stone masonry, glass blowing, brass making, and intricate wood work.
- Local material is limestone
So what provides energy to these buildings? Syria used to be one of the top countries for oil and natural gas extraction and distribution. With the abundance of fossil fuels, solar energy (only solar water heaters were used) was not a prominent resource before the conflict because traditional energy systems were in place. Following the conflict, Syria’s total oil supply plummeted to nearly zero with consumption decreasing along with it. Lack of oil and natural gas helped greenhouse gas emissions to plummet. Even though, GHG emissions have halted, its unfortunate to be under these tumultuous circumstances. To keep CO2 emissions low, these numbers should be taken into consideration and to push for renewable energy and divest or limit the use of fossil fuels.
Aimspower, a solar panel manufacturer, is a major distributor of panels for Syria. As solar panels may not be too appealing for many, they can nicely be integrated on rooftops with a greenroof. Green roofs also have a connotation of not being easily maintained. However, mildew accumulated on panels can provide water for the vegetation.
Future of Syria
As these problems have been highlighted in a blog post, imagine how the Syrian orphans who are seen as the hope and future generation of rebuilding Syria, have dealt with these traumatic experiences only to be met with worse problems.
Over 625 children have been killed, 6 million are in need of humanitarian aid, and 4 million children are no longer in school.
As observed from the children’s mental trauma, children’s surmounting stress is only further increased from the lack of accessiblity to education. And sadly there is a stigma associated with seeking mental help. However, by creating a resilient biophilic wellness center in Idlib, Syria that acts as an agricultural, economical, and architectural model for rebuilding Syria, the result will be the restoration of the lives of Syrian children affected by the stress of war. Here's a little sneak peek of Part 2, stay tuned!