Camp residents face yet another winter under dilapidated roofs
Ali Darwish | Habaa Shehadah | Zeynep Masri
The scene of Ibrahim Darwish and his family running at night to search for a roof to shelter from the rain is not new to the Syrian displacement camps’ residents. In these camps, annual torrents hit, and residents are unable to reach a sustainable solution. However, this year, the scenes of concrete walls falling on residents after the first mere showers were unprecedented.
With fragile solutions and rapidly perishable aid, winter brings along the formation of pools that damage properties and flood tents with mud. Furthermore, they are the source of various diseases and increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 through the population escalating during recent months.
Aside from increasing their calls for aid, residents tend to find solutions independently without waiting for donors. In this Article, Enab Baladi explores the camp residents’ experience and the causes of the regular winter crises and the failure to find solutions. This includes meeting with active humanitarian organizations’ representatives to determine the needs and prospects for meeting them.
Camps under threat of severe weather and COVID-19 pandemic
In the “Cover of Mercy” camp, in the northern countryside of Idlib, only those who managed to get out quickly survived the collapse of concrete walls in more than 20 units.
“Most of the construction is bad; if we had a drainage system, water would not have entered the tents and the houses, units would not have collapsed,” said Ibrahim to Enab Baladi, who lives with his family in the camp.
Thirteen camps were affected by the first rainstorms of winter in northwestern Syria at the beginning of November, followed by 38 camps the next day, according to estimates by Syria’s Response Coordination Group (SRCG).
Over the past five years, voices demanding action to help the residents of the camps flooded by heavy rains in northwestern Syria have been echoing since November 2016. This came after 21 camps were damaged, and the torrents spread, causing destruction to the property and making it difficult for internally displaced persons (IDPs)to move. The problem continued until December 2018, during which a storm blew up and severely damaged 43 camps.
In March 2019, floods removed shelters and destroyed road infrastructure and food stores in 115 camps suffering from the effects. Last June, torrential rains hit 20 camps, killing three people and destroying hundreds of shelters.
Raed Abu Ahmed, the representative of Kafr Daryan camps and the director of “Al-Ghufran” camp in the northern countryside of Idlib described the situation as “tragic,” saying that the rainfall on the originally-frayed tents drowned them and prevented water tanks from reaching six or seven camps in Kafr Daryan. Residents were forced to carry water using buckets.
According to Raed Abu Ahmed, the poverty of the population and the lack of aid are reasons. He said to Enab Baladi, “Children are walking barefoot, and people do not have money for food,” indicating that people do not have suitable supplies to combat the winter or proper sanitation equipment to face the cold.
IDPs are among the groups most vulnerable to natural disasters for several reasons, which were identified by the “REACH” initiative in its assessment of the number of camps facing flood risk this year.
The most important cause of damage is the selection of campsites, which are often set up on vacant lands that are not suitable for housing and have been abandoned due to soil erosion or the rocky and rugged nature of the land, or because they fall in the course of seasonal torrents.
Living conditions cause overcrowding of the displaced with shelters that are not designed to resist nature’s forces. This is in conjunction with the displacement of more than one million people due to the recent military campaign that targeted the northern countryside of Hama and southern Idlib and lasted from December 2019 until last March. The campaign increased the number of camp residents up to 35 percent in the Dana region in Idlib’s northern countryside.
Leaking, collapsing or sinking
This winter, the “Sheikh Idris” camp in Idlib’s northern countryside was the first to be affected by the first rainfalls. “Most of the tents floated around, and the housing units had the largest share of damage with their walls falling,” said Mahmoud al-Sayed, a resident in the camp, to Enab Baladi.
Most of the residents had to temporarily resort to cohesive tents until they found ways to rehabilitate their housing units. “People borrow money to repair and insult the walls,” al-Sayed said, noting that most of the tents are old and need to be replaced, and the absence of sewage and the flooding threatens more potential damage.
Establishing camps without a preconceived plan or sanitation and social infrastructure is the first factor referred to by the shelter sector coordinator in the “Ataa for Humanitarian Relief” association, Nizar Boustani, in an interview with Enab Baladi. He added that “The displaced established their settlements themselves. They chose the campsites randomly without a proper study or any considerations; some chose a site at the floodwater route in the winter.”
“Building a well-planned and studied camp takes weeks and perhaps months of work and the successive waves of displacement have exerted a pressure and quick measures need to be taken,” Boustani said, noting that the organization was forced to re-evaluate its priorities and postpone what it was planning in terms of regular camps, and to move towards distribution and installation of tents in camp expansions, which contributed to the emergence of random ones.
Director of the Early Recovery and Lives Program at Bunyan Organization, Ahmed Qattan, believes that the flood is relevant to the camp’s land’s nature. The site’s choice is subject to multiple conditions, including determining the height, the likelihood of torrents, and determining land ownership and proximity to residential, military, and security areas.
According to OCHA statistics, with 72 percent of the camps located on privately owned land, the possibility of equipping the infrastructure is subject to the approval of the landowners. However, the concrete construction could not protect the camps from the effects of torrents and floods, which knocked down dozens of walls during a moderate rainfall.
The collapse of the newly built housing units’ walls, which were supposed to act as a buffer against the severe climate and weather conditions, increased the residents’ worry and fear of the poor construction.
According to information provided to Enab Baladi by organization officials, the organizations that promoted the idea of building concrete housing units this year did not carry out the construction themselves. It is rather done by contractors who apply with their plans to a tender, and then the organizations select the most suitable option according to the offers.
Director of the “This Is My Life” volunteer group in Idlib, architecture engineer Sarya Bitar stated that specialists do not inspect the plans. The units are assessed only by external appearance without verifying an appropriate infrastructure such as strengthening the foundations, drainage networks, electricity, and clean water. “Those who distribute the food baskets are often the ones who plan and implement,” the engineer said.
Engineer Bitar added to Enab Baladi that the contractors who received the projects for implementation often seek profit and savings, which leads to corruption by saving the expenses of basic materials that resist weather conditions and ensure the building’s durability.
Previously, Enab Baladi learned from Muhammad Hallaj, the SRCG director, that the first reason for the collapse of some concrete houses in camps like Tramla was rain showers that increased the load on shades fixed on the residential concrete units, in addition to the absence of bearing walls and the wind gusts, which in turn put pressure on these units.
This “disaster” could have been prevented through a metal structure (metal truss) on which the shades can be fixed diagonally, adding some details such as thresholds for the walls, and making “reinforced concrete” checks on the edges of the doors. It is also preferable to have concrete thresholds capable of absorbing shocks, according to Hallaj.
Hallaj considered that corruption is evident within this project in all aspects. The most prominent aspect is the selection of the quality of building materials used in such camps. He attributed this to the absence of laboratories to inspect the materials used in building such houses.
Hallaj added that it is noticeable that there is a defect in the walls’ construction, as it was assumed that there was a superposition rate in the “block” estimated between 40 percent and 60 percent.
Although the organizations assert that the process of planning and employing contractors for construction includes following up compliance with the specified standards and ensuring proper implementation, there is no external oversight that follows up on construction safety and reviews engineering plans. Simultaneously, the “Salvation Government (SG) content to raise cement prices in Idlib by more than $ 20 for the ton last October, coinciding with the camp residents’ need to reinforce and repair their housing units.
On their way back and forth through the “Bab al-Hawa” border gate, the United Nations relief trucks expanded the crossing area. They increased the number of aid to northwestern Syria without interruption. The matter started with Resolution No. 2533 by the Security Council regarding the delivery of aid across the border to the regions beyond the Syrian regime’s control.
However, the increase in aid did not suffice for the 2.8 million people in need out of 4.1 million of the region’s resident population. After the logistical difficulties that the relief convoys faced due to diverting their route from the Bab Assalam border gate that was closed by Russian efforts last July, the COVID-19 pandemic became a major problem impeded the movement and needed focus. This prevented the provision of other basic types of aid to reach the needy on time.
According to the report submitted to the Security Council by the United Nations Agency for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on 14 October, agreements on bureaucratic procedures imposed by the ruling authorities were reached in the northwest region, without finding a similar solution northeast.
United Nations agencies were able to provide aid in Hasaka and some parts of Raqqa, which are under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration. However, security obstacles prevented access to Manbij and Ain al-Arab due to disagreement between the Syrian government and the parties controlling the two cities, the Turkish-backed National Army.
The obstructions to government approvals caused the delay in delivering aid by the relief convoys after the closure of the “al-Yaroubia” border crossing with Iraq at the beginning of this year. The deliveries could only meet 36% of the medical facilities’ requirements that aid previously had reached across the border.
Despite their presence near the American base in al-Tanf, more than 12,000 people in the Rukban camp on the Jordanian border are still under the mercy of government approvals (the Syrian regime and the Russian ally). The last aid convoy to enter the camp was in September of 2019.
According to the report, the delivery of aid to Ghouta areas in Rif Dimashq and the southern governorates was also subjected to administrative problems and security obstacles. The matter which indicated that the Syrian pound’s stability in recent months compared to the beginning of the year did not lead to a decrease in living costs in Syria, while the price of the food basket is 22 fold of that before 2011.
The ” Shelter Sector “ report, issued last October by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, stated that winter aid does not include shelters or hygiene and cooking kits, because these fall into a different category, but includes the distribution of fuel and gas, plastic sheets, lifting and insulting emergency tents and shelters, and distributing thermal blankets and winter clothing.
This aid only targets the most vulnerable groups, such as families headed by women and children, people with disabilities, the elderly, people with more than five children, and families that do not have a breadwinner or include a pregnant or breastfeeding woman. This means that it excludes all families whose members have an income exceeding $ 20 per person.
The sector identified the most important winter problems this year being the inadequate tent quantity in northwestern Syria, overcrowding in the north-east, where the number of camp residents reaches 88,000 of which 65,000 are in “al-Hol” camp, and the inadequate housing in the countryside of Damascus, with residents all over the country struggling to find fuel and obtain warmth.
The shelter sector coordinator at Ataa for Humanitarian Relief, Nizar Boustani, explained that the winter insulation provided by the aid lasts for a maximum period of a year due to the weather fluctuations in summer and winter is if not worn out earlier.
Replacing the worn-out tents, insulting the tents’ roofs and floors, laying the roads, and securing heating supplies were among the most important things that civilians needed, as noted by Enab Baladi.
The director of “Syria’s Response Coordination Group,” Muhammad Hallaj, told Enab Baladi that the relief support is changing negatively, the humanitarian response in the camps is frequently decreasing, and the winter response this year will be less than previous years because a large part of it is allocated to combat the “Coronavirus” pandemic.
The camps have “humanitarian essential needs,” which are manifested by overcoming the problems of rainstorms, such as installing rain and ground insulators and paving roads.
Individual initiatives to cope with the winter
After months of waiting for aid that a large proportion of the needy has been promised but not provided, individual camp residents took the initiative to find solutions to prevent their tents from sinking.
Digging trenches to prevent sinking
Rajaa Ismail (50 years old) lived with her two sons in a “bad” situation after rainwater surrounded their tent from all sides in the “Ramdoun” camp on the outskirts of Kafr Aruq village, northwest of Idlib city. After the rains, her two sons worked to drain the pool formed from the rain in front of their tent by removing the water using “cooking equipment.”
Rajaa dug a trench around the tent to prevent water from entering her tent, placed small stones in front of it to form a sidewalk, and bought a used shade for 25,000 Syrian pounds (about 9 USD), and placed it on top of the tent, to prevent water from leaking into it.
Furthermore, a 40-year-old resident of “Sheikh Idris” camp named Mahmoud al-Sayed did not prepare his tent for winter, but he worked with other young men from the camp to dig a trench to draw the rainwater out.
Al-Sayed told Enab Baladi that the organizations did not respond to the camp at the moment of the rain because the tents are built of “bricks,” and their roofs are covered with shades.
After the water reached all the tents, al-Sayed and the other young men broke down the tent’s floor. They made a trench to agricultural land as a temporary solution, especially after the rainwater mixed with the drilling water.
Al-Sayed added that the camp residents have been calling on humanitarian organizations since last Ramadan to dig sanitation installations for the camp, but there was no response.
laying gravel floors and building with mud
Khaled al-Abdullah, a resident of the “Fukaraa Lillah” camp on the outskirts of Harbanoush village, west of Idlib, chose to floor his tent with black stones, which he brought to the camp from the railway, hoping that the gravel would raise the tent’s level and prevent mud from forming after the rainfall.
The “lack of relief response” was also what prompted al-Abdullah to move. He used small transport vehicles and agricultural tractors to transport the gravel with other residents in his camp, as recounted to Enab Baladi.
Iftikar al-Houran, after nine months of displacement in Idlib, decided to build with her own hands, with the help of her young children, using mud and gravels.
Iftikar told her story to Enab Baladi, saying that the hard work in construction made her better prepared to face the winter. Despite her lack of experience in building houses and relying on mud and straw to install her new home walls, her construction was stable, and she now has a room and a kitchen.
Heating is not affordable due to current high fuel prices
Fuel prices have been unstable in northwestern Syria with the rise and fall of the value of the Turkish lira, which rose increasingly within two months before declining again at the beginning of November, making heating fuel an unlikely option for camp residents who cannot secure it themselves or through relief organizations.
The residents of northwestern Syria adopt various methods of heating. These methods included burning everything unneeded, such as preparing “Jellah” tablets (animal dung mixed with hay), collecting dry thyme branches and bushes, and buying old shoes, cheap charcoal or olive residues, or pistachio shells.
The cost of a ton of “olive residues,” according to Mahmoud al-Sayed’s estimation in the “Sheikh Idris” camp, is $ 100, and the price of a ton of firewood is $ 150, which the displaced cannot afford. Some residents instead collect and burn nylon waste despite its fumes’ health risk when burned, rather than waiting for aid.
How to survive winter in camps
Living in a thin tent or a concrete housing unit with a plastic roof is not much different from living in the open air. The displaced remain vulnerable to the fluctuations of the weather and its threats. Still, winter does not necessarily mean cold, wetness, and disease, in case of following the instructions advised by specialized camping sites to challenge the rainy weather conditions.
Say no to damp
The first step to select an appropriate campsite is to ensure a dried area. Measures such as avoiding torrent routes and setting up a tent on heights while paying attention to the nature of the soil and the extent of its absorption of water and beware of the possibility of its erosion can prevent the problems of muddy water pools.
Wearing appropriate clothing of several layers keeps warm more than wearing a thick single layer. Avoiding cotton clothes in winter is recommended to maintain dryness because cotton retains moisture when subjected to sweating or rain. Thus, the feeling of coldness lingers, so clothes made of wool, “polyester” or nylon are the best.
– Keep the tent as dry as possible: Using waterproof fabric and spreading it on the floor of the tent, raising it from the ground level, and using additional shades on the roof of the tent are factors to allow the tent to withstand even the worst showers.
– Sleeping Hammock: The best way to ensure children are dry is to lift them off the ground. You can do this by installing a sleeping hammock and securing it to the tent pole properly to make sure it does not fall.
– No wet clothes: Hang damp clothes to dry inside the tent, and do not leave them wet if possible. Try to keep the clothes warm before putting them on.
– Use of plastic bags: Plastic bags provide good insulation against water and allow keeping luggage, food, and clothes dry, as well as the firewood or fuel supplies available so that they can be easily burned for heating.
– Paper use: Paper can soak up the excess moisture. It can be used in wet shoes to speed up their drying because warmth in the feet is essential to maintaining good blood circulation in the body.
Combat disease with your lifestyle
The winter period is associated with lethargy and laziness, during which there is a great desire to eat sugars and fats that have detrimental health effects on the body. This necessitates activity and balanced food to resist seasonal diseases.
– Avoid sugar: Choose foods high in protein and low in fat. Do not skip breakfast to get the energy you need during the day.
– Increase your intake of “omega-3”: The fatty acid found in fish, nuts, and seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin reduces the joint pain exacerbated by the cold and alleviates winter depression.
– Mushrooms, apples, and spices to increase immunity: Mushrooms, apples, and spices such as onions, garlic, ginger, coriander, and turmeric protect against disease thanks to the antibiotics they naturally contain.
– Wash your hands frequently: Seasonal diseases are more common during the winter. The best prevention is to maintain hygiene, pay attention to what you touch, and wash your hands with soap and water frequently for at least 20 seconds.
– Adequate sleep: The body naturally needs to sleep for longer periods during the winter. Lack of sleep has negative effects on energy and the body, so you must get enough rest.
During the winter months, the lack of sunlight leads the body to a sense of depression and increases stress, which turns into a constant negative feeling.
– Exercise: Exercising regularly gives the vitality and energy needed to fight the cold weather and increases the happiness hormones needed to combat feelings of depression.
– Follow relaxation exercises: Deep breathing protects against tension and removes feelings of anger and fatigue as it allows the body to relax and rest.
– Do not stop walking: Continuing to walk, even for small distances, allows you to keep laziness away from the body and relax your nerves.
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