Spark of the Soil

Dr Johnathan Bridge


In war, military strategy and tactics often ignore the impact fighting has on people or their land. Too often, no one is held accountable for the lingering effects of collapsing buildings, exploding bombs, and polluting contaminants – the toxic heavy metals transported through the food chain into nervous systems, organophosphorus nerve agents, dioxins, radionuclides, or deliberately introduced poisons that seep into soil and water, staying in the ecosystem for an indefinite period.

The war in Syria has been a colossal disaster and, in the northwest, a place of extreme humanitarian crises and a historically agricultural region, the soil had not been surveyed since 2011, even after a decade of war. In 2021, Professor Miassar Alhasan, Vice Rector of Al Sham University in NW Syria and a group of Syrian colleagues, all Cara Syria Programme participants, submitted a research proposal to Cara to conduct a regional soil survey. Dr Jonathan Bridge, an environmental geoscientist at Sheffield Hallam University, was invited by the Syria Programme to take on the role of team mentor. Now, in 2023, in the aftermath of the earthquakes, summer fires, new attacks and an ongoing cholera epidemic, the state of soil in this region is inevitably pushed to the bottom of the agenda: “People often talk about soil being a hidden casualty of war because it is very easy to dismiss! I think everyone takes soil for granted wherever you are in the world.” Bridge says. “But it’s so fundamental to food security and human health, especially to people who are living hand to mouth and living in very close proximity to the soil in camps and tents and informal settlements, as they are in NW Syria”.

Although this was Bridge’s first time working as a research project mentor with Cara, his involvement with Cara stretches back some years. When working at the University of Liverpool, he hosted Syrian Cara Fellow Dr Ziad Abdeldayem, now working at Liverpool John Moores University. Almost ten years on, the soil project was an opportunity for them to work together as co-mentors on this critical environmental issue of concern to them both. “I’m very moved by the work people do and by the collaboration and friendships that have developed through Cara,” Bridge explained. “It is an extraordinary organisation, and the more I find out about it, and the more I talk to people working in it, the more impressed I am and the greater its importance seems to me. It’s a privilege to witness just a small part of the Cara Syria Programme and to support the academics as they work. They give so much to their homeland.” The project sparked his passion because it encapsulated several aspects of his own research career: “I began looking at small-scale soils and nanoparticles, then at soil weathering, at environmental radioactivity and then catchment flood management.”  The soils team was awarded a grant and, between them and their mentors, pooled resources and equipment from five different institutions in Syria, Turkey, and the UK.

Originally from East Kent, Bridge studied planetary science at University College London before progressing to a masters in environmental science and then moving to Sheffield and a PhD in environmental engineering as part of the University of Sheffield Groundwater Protection and Restoration Group. At Sheffield, Bridge was inspired by his supervisor Professor Steve Banwart, now Director of the Global Food and Environment Institute at Leeds, to study contaminants and colloids in soils: “He switched me on to just how important soil is in terms of underpinning global food supply and global biodiversity, and how at risk it is under agricultural intensification, climate change and erosion. I guess that was the spark. My other supervisor was Professor Louise Heathwaite, now at University of Lancaster. Her focus is large-scale, thinking about water and contaminant movement through landscapes and watersheds, and that’s the scale I’ve been working on more recently. They were very inspirational researchers, and looking back over my own career I can see I’ve charted a middle road.”

Work on the Cara Syria Programme-funded soil project began in 2021. The team pieced together studies using different methodologies from different surveys, one in Croatia, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav conflict in the 1990s and ones from Iran and Iraq, aligning their sampling and analysis methodology to that used by a major European Union topsoil survey carried out in the last decade. Due to security restrictions, the Syrian team was unable to sample as freely as they would have liked, working around several constraints to access sampling sites across the region. The enthusiasm and contribution of students at Al Sham University, in northwest Syria, was essential to the success of the project, as they were able to access locations in their hometowns and regions using their local knowledge and networks. Between July and September 2021, the students collected soil samples, characterising the sample sites: agricultural areas, backyards, allotments and roadside areas, all in the vicinity of 21 small towns in northwest Syria.

Initially, the samples were sent to university labs in Turkey but needed further study to understand the calibrations and quality control data. “At that point, Kate Robertson at Cara introduced us to Professor Duncan Pirrie, a geochemist at the University of South Wales.” Bridge explains. “Duncan was able to support reanalysis of the samples in the UK. With his help, Cara shipped the soil samples over to the UK for analysis at USW and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, collaborating with Prof Lorna Dawson”. These data revealed a nuanced but important story about the state of soil in northwest Syria after a decade of conflict.

The ‘good’ news was that total concentrations of potentially toxic elements, often known as heavy metals, were broadly consistent with the pre-war data from topsoil analysis in the northwestern governorate of Aleppo, and with recent data from comparable regions in Turkey. The samples were not as polluted as in heavily industrialised regions in Syria, for example around Homs, or even industrial and urban soils from the UK or across Europe. However, nickel and chromium concentrations were alarmingly high, higher than typical European guideline thresholds, in mainly agricultural areas throughout the region. In a more localised area around Sarmada in Idlib province to the west of Aleppo, where some of the most intense direct and indirect impacts of conflict have been felt, cadmium, cobalt, and arsenic exceeded EU thresholds for safety and were three times higher than in nearby agrarian regions in southern Turkey.

War has multiple indirect impacts – forced migration, informal settlements, unregulated industry, and a massive collapse of physical and regulatory infrastructure for environmental protection. In northwest Syria there has been a complete breakdown of the sewage infrastructure, and heavy metals or potentially toxic elements suspended in untreated water and dissolving into the soil have been discharged into rivers. That water is then pumped and applied to irrigate crops: “We believe that heavy metals contained within that wastewater, alongside things like cholera and other microbial pathogens, can accumulate in the soils, and the consequence of that over a decade of war is what we think we’re seeing. Previously good-quality agricultural soils are being progressively contaminated and degraded at the same time as the pathways of exposure for contaminants to reach people via soil are changing and becoming potentially more hazardous.” The team of researchers would like agricultural NGOs, who support farmers in the region, to include this on their agendas, and ideally, Bridge says, there needs to be further research so that people can understand the risks and develop safer ways of managing and eventually remediating the soil.

Since 2017, Bridge has taught environmental sciences at Sheffield Hallam. His current research on natural flood management interventions and catchment hydrology sees him at home in the Eastern Pennines, but he cherishes the international collegial relationships that have enabled collaborations abroad and in particular the impact made by Cara: “Academics talk an awful lot about having a ‘global academic community’, but a lot of inequality exists between the mostly rich Western institutions and the rest of the world. When we talk about mobility and the ability to work with scientists or researchers from anywhere across the world, that’s often wealthy researchers from high income countries travelling and applying their science or working on their own agenda. Cara is extraordinary in that it gives real meaning to the idea of an equitable academic community that works to provide academics who are in extremis a way to safety and the continuation of their academic work. That has to be fundamental to a civilised global academy – otherwise, what are we here for?”