Geopolitics

Tackling The Next Crisis In Syria: Winter

Local organizations have been working day and night over the past two months to prepare Syrians for the winter cold. Nearly a dozen people died there last January due to a fatal combination of inadequate shelter and freezing weather.

At a UNHCR refugee camp in Homs, Syria
At a UNHCR refugee camp in Homs, Syria
Tamer Osman

ALEPPO As harsh winter weather descends on Syria, local aid organizations and councils are working around the clock to ensure that the country's poor and displaced will survive the cold temperatures.

More than 80 local relief organizations, local councils and civil defense groups have been working under the banner "Before the Disaster Strikes" to prevent a repeat of the cold-weather fatalities that occurred last year. The situation is further complicated, they say, by unaffordable fuel prices and mass power outages.

"We are hoping to preemptively gear up for the risks of a harsh winter and avoid the unnecessary deaths, lack of food and blocked roads that we witnessed in previous years," says Dr. Muawiya Harsouni, the campaign's general manager.

There are an estimated 6.5 million internally displaced people in Syria, according to the latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Many have been displaced several times and lack any sort of proper housing to protect themselves from the cold. "An estimated 2. 4 million people lack adequate shelter," says Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR.

Winter in Syria can be harsh, especially in remote, hard-to-reach areas. Last year's winter temperatures dropped to 8.6 °F (-13 °C) in some parts of the country. And when cold weather and inadequate shelters are coupled with electricity and fuel shortages, things only get worse.

"Syrians are facing their fifth winter in a state of conflict," says Rummery. "Since the onset of hostilities, the average life expectancy has fallen by 20 years. Four out of five Syrians live in poverty and winter will be particularly harsh for them, as it will be for those who lack adequate shelter."

Burning plastic and old clothes

Last year, unexpected heavy rains, snow and cold temperatures hit refugee camps across Syria and in neighboring countries, claiming the lives of 11 people in northern Syria, including a two-day-old infant and an elderly man in the city of Aleppo. Three other children died in the Halima refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, when tents collapsed due to heavy snow and rain.

Abdulrazzaq, a 39-year-old man from Aleppo, lives with his family of five in the Bab al-Salaam refugee camp, located along the Syrian-Turkish border. He describes the camp as primitive at best. Electricity is almost non-existent, and water is only delivered sporadically. The only source of heat they have is from a barrel in which they burn pieces of plastic and old clothes to keep warm.

"I came here with my family when the bombing on Aleppo intensified during the month of Ramadan in 2012. I could not afford to go anywhere else. Our suffering repeats itself every winter," he says. "The tents are cheap and primitive. They soak up water when it rains, and they collapse when it snows. I burn whatever I can find in a barrel in order to keep us warm, but the smell is unbearable. They keep telling us that things will be better soon, but nothing has changed."

Local organizations working to prevent the kind of cold-weather deaths that happened last year are well aware of the dangers associated with winter. "What happened in previous winters was deeply disturbing," says Wael Halabi, a public relations officer with the Aleppo-based Abrar Association for Relief and Development, one of the partner organizations working with Before the Disaster Strikes. "We've taken many preemptive measures this year."

"We launched our "Even a Dollar Can Help" donation campaign two months ago, and have used the money to purchase diesel fuel, which we have distributed to poor families throughout Aleppo," says Halabi. His organization hopes to provide 1,000 families with 100 liters of diesel each.

The situation in neighborhoods controlled by the opposition forces in the city of Aleppo isn't much better than in the informal camps along the border. Since the armed conflict began, people in these areas have been living in deplorable conditions. Keeping warm during winter is a challenge because of the high cost of fuel and the lack of electricity, which lasts for less than four hours per day, if it comes at all.

Abu Salih, 64, lives with his wife in al-Jazmati, an opposition-controlled neighborhood in Aleppo. He says that nearly everyone from the area has left because of the near-constant violence. During the day, he wanders empty streets in search of scraps to burn to keep his family warm.

"I'm an old man. I can't work or afford diesel or wood to keep us warm. I usually burn old furniture or old clothes," he says. "Winter here is very harsh. Last year, I received wood and a wood burner from an aid organization. But we haven't received anything yet this winter. We hope that our voice will reach those in charge."

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