'Rising with the sun': Raqqa's surge in solar panels rejuvenates embattled city

After the destruction of the Tabqa Dam during the Syrian Civil War, residents in Raqqa have turned to solar energy to subsist [Getty Images]
11 June, 2021

The Syrian city of Raqqa has served in prominent roles throughout its history: as a major trading post for the Byzantine Empire in antiquity, as a short-lived capital for the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle Ages, and as an administrative centre for the Ottoman Empire before the Ottomans’ twentieth-century downfall.

Between 2014 and 2017, the city played its most notorious part, functioning as the Syrian headquarters of the Islamic State’s brutal regime. Today, the residents of Raqqa hope that their city will start making headlines for a far different reason.

In the four years since Western-backed Kurdish forces liberated Raqqa from the Islamic State group, the city has begun to recast itself as an unlikely hub for the development of renewable energy.

As Raqqa’s inhabitants seek to move past the destruction wrought by the reign of the Islamic State group and a decade of war, innovation has become a key component of the city’s reconstruction. Amid a dearth of public services, solar energy is helping Raqqa fill the gap.

This embrace of renewable energy has resulted more from necessity than out of any commitment to environmental protection or sustainable development

As early as 2018, Firat News Agency, an outlet linked to the Kurdish group that now governs Raqqa, reported that engineers were employing solar power to light the city. In the intervening years, the use of solar energy spread well beyond the city limits. Just last month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted that farmers at the edges of Raqqa were using solar panels to power the irrigation of their fields. Given Raqqa’s limited access to traditional sources of electricity, demand for solar panels there has spiked according to the United Nations.

The Tabqa Dam, located on the Euphrates, 45 kilometres west of Raqqa, served as Syria’s primary source of electricity prior to the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.

The structure supported irrigation in Raqqa and rural areas across the country. However, local news agencies suggest that the operation to retake the Tabqa Dam from the Islamic State four years ago resulted in lasting damage, and Raqqa has struggled with getting enough electricity ever since.

In a May 2019 press release, the United States Agency for International Development observed that 200,000 of Raqqa’s inhabitants lacked electricity until American-supported Syrian engineers brought back power. Groups such as the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, an initiative financed by Western countries, have launched a series of projects to repair Raqqa’s electrical grid. Nonetheless, a drop in the water levels of the Euphrates, the result of Turkish damming upstream, has further decreased the amount of electricity produced by the Tabqa Dam.

Until residents of Raqqa can once again count on consistent public services, solar panels offer a reliable alternative. This embrace of renewable energy has resulted more from necessity than out of any commitment to environmental protection or sustainable development. At the same time, though, Raqqa’s innovative use of solar power can serve as a model for other cities recovering from conflict, whether elsewhere in Syria or across the Arab world.

Within Syria, solar panels have enjoyed a remarkable jump in popularity ever since the Syrian Civil War made reliance on the electrical grid a significant liability. The international community is bankrolling a project to develop solar-powered pumping stations north of Aleppo, and solar panels have enabled Syrians in the blackout-prone, rebel-held city of Idlib to illuminate their homes. The North Press Agency, a Kurdish news agency, has even reported on the theft of solar panels in Afrin, speaking to how coveted access to solar energy has become in Syria.

In the era of the Environmental Revolution, Raqqa may yet become the Syrian capital of solar energy

When conflicts destroy power stations and limit the availability of the fossil fuels necessary to run generators, solar panels guarantee electricity to any household with a view of the sun. For that reason, the employment of solar power has soared in countries that otherwise have few resources to invest in renewable energy, from Syria to the battlefields of Libya and Yemen.

Before last year’s ceasefire, Libya, though rich in hydrocarbons, struggled to generate enough electricity for its populace, with warring factions competing for control of power stations and oil wells. The North African country’s UN-recognised government viewed solar power as a means of rehabilitating the beleaguered Libyan electrical grid, a project that seems more feasible as Libya’s acrimonious former combatants attempt to stitch together a lasting peace.

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In Yemen, where the conflict has yet to abate, residents of the rebel-held north rely on solar panels in the place of power stations flattened by airstrikes. According to an April 2021 report by the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a British research group, the use of solar panels for irrigation has grown so widespread in Yemen that solar energy has, in fact, exacerbated the country’s long-standing problems with water scarcity. Even if the conflict in Yemen subsides, dependence on solar power will likely remain a fact of life there for decades to come.

Raqqa, determined to find a long-term solution to its own electrical troubles, is looking at a similar future. Solar energy has already plugged keyholes into the city’s power grid. In the era of the Environmental Revolution, Raqqa may yet become the Syrian capital of solar energy.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution.