Invasive flower threatens livelihoods of farmers, fishermen in war-torn Syria

The plant is choking off the only natural water source in Idlib province.

December 6, 2023, 4:22 AM

IDLIB, Syria -- The Orontes River in northwestern Syria has long been a lifeline for farmers, including 50-year-old Bahjat al-Bakru, who have used it to irrigate their nearby crops.

But since the start of the year, al-Bakru said, about 70% of his fruit trees have died because an invasive flower now covers the entire surface of the river in front of his land, choking off the only natural water source in Idlib province.

"Agriculture is my only source of livelihood and I lost most of my trees," al-Bakru told ABC News. "The spread of the Nile flower in the river reduced the water level and blocked it completely. It became difficult to water my trees."

PHOTO: Bahjat al-Bakru tries to remove some of the Nile flowers that have surrounded his fruit trees on the banks of the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Bahjat al-Bakru tries to remove some of the Nile flowers that have surrounded his fruit trees on the banks of the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Abdul Razzaq Al-Shami/ABC News

The water hyacinth, nicknamed the Nile flower, is a free-floating perennial aquatic plant native to parts of South America that has emerged as a major weed in dozens of countries in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Although its large purple blooms and thick green leaves may be appealing to the eye, the Nile flower has been identified as one of the most aggressive invasive species and one of the worst weeds in the world due to its ability to grow and spread rapidly, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The plant has already ravaged river ecosystems and local economies, and experts warned that without intervention it could completely consume waterways like the Orontes River in northwestern Syria.

PHOTO: The Nile flower blooms on the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
The Nile flower blooms on the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Abdul Razzaq Al-Shami/ABC News

It's unclear exactly when or how the Nile flower was introduced to the Orontes River, which flows through Lebanon, Syria and Turkey before draining into the Mediterranean Sea. Currently, the invasive plant extends for 34 miles across the surface of the river in Syria's Idlib province, covering a vast majority of the water, according to a survey conducted by Idlib-based agricultural engineer Musa al-Bakr. The dense vegetation blocks the flow of the water by spreading in the river basin, lowers river levels by absorbing large amounts of water and suffocates the aquatic ecosystem by blocking out light and oxygen. As a result, the livelihoods of local communities are at risk.

"The drying up of water resources, the death of fisheries and the decline of cultivated areas as a result of drought will push the region toward further desertification," al-Bakr told ABC News. "We have lost control of this plant to the point that we no longer see bodies of water, but rather we see green bodies of the Nile flower."

PHOTO: An aerial view shows the invasion of the Nile flower on the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
An aerial view shows the invasion of the Nile flower on the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Abdul Razzaq Al-Shami/ABC News

Moreover, research suggests that global warming will be favorable to the survivability and growth of the Nile flower. In a 2013 report, the U.N. Environmental Programme expressed concern that "climate change may allow the spread of water hyacinth to higher latitudes."

"According to recent climate change models, its distribution may expand into higher latitudes as temperatures rise, posing problems to formerly hyacinth free areas," the organization wrote. "Given the complexity of control options and the potential for climate change to assist the spread of water hyacinth, it is critical to develop comprehensive management strategies and action plans."

The spread of the Nile flower has been managed in neighboring countries like Egypt using various techniques, such as spraying a certain type of pesticide that eliminates the plant and mechanically removing the vegetation from the water with special boats. However, neither of those methods are available in Syria's Idlib province.

PHOTO: Bahjat al-Bakru tries to remove some of the Nile flowers that have surrounded his fruit trees on the banks of the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Bahjat al-Bakru tries to remove some of the Nile flowers that have surrounded his fruit trees on the banks of the Orontes River in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Abdul Razzaq Al-Shami/ABC News

For years, Idlib and other opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria have been under heavy bombardment by the Syrian military and allied Russian forces. The conditions have made it difficult for local authorities to address the issue of the Nile flower.

"We are in an area witnessing bombing, our capabilities are limited and we have hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the camps," Mohammed Amhan, deputy director of water resources in Idlib province, told ABC News. "The spread of the plant is very large and needs a large financial cost that exceeds our ability. We ask the relevant international organizations to provide assistance to us so that we can combat this plant before it is too late."

Local farmers, like al-Bakru, try on their own to protect their land and stop the Nile flower from spreading, but their efforts are ultimately in vain.

"Every day, I have to go down to the water to remove and remove this plant that now surrounds my trees," al-Bakru said. "The control efforts are individual and this plant cannot be controlled. It is growing very fast and is creeping into agricultural land and destroying it."

PHOTO: Nafia Sattouf goes fishing in the Orontes River, where the Nile flower covers much of the surface, in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Nafia Sattouf goes fishing in the Orontes River, where the Nile flower covers much of the surface, in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, on Nov. 30, 2023.
Abdul Razzaq Al-Shami/ABC News

Another farmer in Idlib province, 60-year-old Hassan Skaif, said he has lost more than a dozen dunums of his trees on the banks of the Orontes River due to the spread of the Nile flower.

"This pest is spreading massively and if support is not provided in combating it, we will lose all our trees within several years," Skaif told ABC News.

Just as farmers are suffering, so too are fishermen like 55-year-old Nafia Sattouf, who has been fishing in the Orontes River in Idlib province for 30 years but is now unemployed.

"I used to catch more than 30 kilos of fish of different sizes and weights per day, but now I barely get one or two fish and its size does not exceed the size of my palms," Sattouf told ABC News. "This plant is a wonder like I have never seen in my life. It started with small seedlings on the sides of the river and within a few months, it covered the entire surface of the river."

ABC News' Morgan Winsor contributed to this report.

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