Monday, November 4, 2013

Before the floods

[Originally posted at NOW]

The UN estimates at least 10,000 Syrian refugees living in tents in Lebanon will soon face flooding.

The center of the unofficial Nahiriyeh camp, near the Beqaa town of Bar Elias (NOW/Alex Rowell)
BAR ELIAS, Lebanon – Arriving at what locals call the “Nahiriyeh camp,” erected on a rectangular patch of gravelly sand hidden among the agrarian fields of the central Beqaa Valley, NOW briefly received a hero’s welcome on Thursday morning. The residents – Syrian refugees from Qusayr and elsewhere in Homs Province – crowded around the car, eagerly asking if we had come to hand out aid. The hope in their eyes quickly drained when we said we were only journalists, and most walked away, heads bowed, muttering under their breath. Those who stayed wasted no time in reeling off a long list of grievances: serious healthcare needs they couldn’t pay for; children denied places at schools; dangerously unclean drinking water; lack of diapers for newborns.

And yet, unenviable as living conditions for Nahiriyeh’s several hundred residents already are, they are soon to get much worse. It has begun to rain in Lebanon in the past fortnight, and though predictions of the harshest winter in a hundred years may be unreliable, snow will nevertheless cover much of the Beqaa in the coming winter months, which is grim news for the more than 270,000 Syrian refugees that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has accounted for in the agricultural plain. Especially vulnerable are the more than 80,000 refugees UNHCR estimates are living in what it calls informal tented settlements (ITS), which are makeshift camps in all but name (unlike Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon does not officially have Syrian refugee camps). Of these settlements, UNHCR says 12% are located in flood-prone areas, which means at least 9,600 refugees will be living in flooded tents once the rain season gets fully underway.

Nahiriyeh’s residents will be among them. Invited inside the home of Umm Ahmad, a warm-spirited grandmother from Qusayr, NOW saw few means by which the family of eight would be able to escape the rain and snow. The roof comprised cardboard box panels supported by wooden beams. The walls were carpets held in place with nails. The floor was a mat thrown over an uneven, cracked layer of concrete; unprofessionally put in place by the refugees themselves. The only furniture, such as it was, consisted of a ring of uncomfortably thin mattresses, functioning as seats, children’s play areas, and beds. Asked how she planned to cope with the coming winter, Umm Ahmad could only laugh: “What you see is what we have.”

Nor were things better in Umm Muhammad’s slightly larger dwelling around the corner. Here, the roof had been fashioned out of woven rice sack material, some of which had begun to fray already. “Look at this,” she told NOW as her children looked on silently. “When it rains, this place is going to fill up.”

In anticipation of these humanitarian disasters-in-waiting, UNHCR and its NGO partners are building on the experiences of the past two winters since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, and have been working on a so-called ‘winterization’ plan since the summer, according to UNHCR spokesperson Joelle Eid.

“In the Beqaa, we have around 280 informal settlements at risk of flooding,” Eid told NOW. “As soon as you have a lot of rain, the floor turns into mud, and those tents are at risk of flooding.” One planned response involves identifying all flood-prone locations, and then re-locating the refugees within them either to shelters or to Lebanese host families (who would then receive compensation from UNHCR), wherever possible.

A parallel initiative, which Eid told NOW has already started, is the distribution of “sealing kits” to refugees – that is, materials with which flood-prone homes could be sufficiently fortified to keep out the wet. Moreover, Eid added that distribution of winter-specific aid, such as warm clothing, blankets, mattresses, and heating fuel “will start in the coming weeks.”

However, Nahiriyeh’s residents – who say they are burning cardboard indoors to stay warm at night – are unconvinced they will see much aid come their way.

“We’ve been promised many things for the winter, but so far there has been nothing.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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