AMMAN—In preparation for the approaching winter and the rains it will bring to the town of Atme near the Turkish border of northwest Syria, Abu Muhammad is building a 40-centimeters-high barrier around his tent in the camp in which he has spent the last five years of his life. 

The prior year, the rains swept away Abu Muhammad’s tent, damaging his possessions and forcing his family to move to their relatives’ tent in a neighboring camp.

Last April, torrential rains caused flash floods,  damaging shelters and IDP camps in northwest Syria. According to local humanitarian groups, the floods caused damage to more than 500 camps in the Idlib countryside alone. Consequently, “around 27,000 families” were affected and “9,302 families faced direct damage,” according to Khaled Abdulrahman, the program director of “Sa’aed” (Help), a Syrian humanitarian organization based in Turkey. 

Children walk by trucks parking in Khaled Ibn al-Walid IDP camp, near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, 5/10/2019 (Syria Direct)

Insufficient efforts

In early October, "Bonyan" (Building), a Syrian humanitarian organization operating in Syria and Turkey, announced that it had begun repairing roads in the town of Atme as a part of a larger “flood preparedness” project.

According to Fu’ad Sayed Issa, the founding member of the board of directors of “Banafsaji” (Violet), an NGO, humanitarian organizations are trying to better prepare IDP camps for the coming winter by improving the infrastructure and raising tents off the ground with concrete. Organizations are trying to prepare themselves to “respond to any emergency in case there are any disasters like the floods of last year, when the Banafsaji team saved people from drowning, evacuated them and helped protect their possessions,” Issa said.

Still, as one IDP living in the area told Syria Direct, the organizations’ efforts thus far are “hopeless and insufficient.”

“One of the humanitarian organizations has distributed rain mats to the residents to prevent water from leaking into their tents. And a limited project was implemented to construct a rain drainage system,” he said.

However, in Khaled Ibn al-Walid camp, where Abu Adel—an IDP from the countryside of Hama—has lived for six years, “the organizations are making no preparations for winter.”

According to Muhammad Hallaj, the director of “Syrian Response Coordinators,” a local group that observes and evaluates the humanitarian situation in northwest Syria, border camps need better pathways and roads, especially since “most of these roads have not been maintained for several years.”

“Water and sewage networks” have not been built or repaired for some time, he added.

There are 1,153 refugee camps in northwest Syria, according to Hallaj. Among them are 242 improvised camps, 131 of them built in recent months as a result of the government-led military campaign in northern Hama and southern Idlib. The campaign has caused the opposition to lose large chunks of territory.

Around 966,140 people are estimated to have been displaced as a result of the military campaign, in addition to the 320,000 people who were already living in camps along the border, according to Hallaj. Most of the IDPs have been living in the Dana region.

The biggest obstacle facing the camps is the sluggish donor response. “It takes a long time,” Hallaj said. In addition, “there are many procedures for bringing the materials into Syria from Turkey … all of this might take several months; that’s why we see a very weak response.”

Issa emphasized that international organizations and donors needed to begin “from this very moment to prepare for the coming winter [natural] disasters.”

“We don’t need to wait to see the tragedy, the pictures, videos and reports during winter. Everyone knows that we are facing a disaster that will repeat year after year if we don’t prepare the area well or prepare the drainage system to divert the rainwater away from the camps.”

A child stands next to a house overlooking a group of tents set up by IDPs south of Khalid Ibn al-Walid Camp, 5/10/2019 (Syria Direct)

Overcrowded and disorganized camps

Syria’s ongoing war has created massive waves of displacement and a huge need for shelter, leading IDPs to hastily create hundreds of makeshift camps, most of which are concentrated on the Syria-Turkey border in the northwest corner of the country.

Despite all the camps being susceptible to erosion, according to Hallaj, makeshift camps remain the “most affected by flooding, as they were erected on red soil which is incapable of [holding] any type of camps or construction.”

As a result, “IDPs have to dig trenches around the camps, similar to how they built small trenches around each tent in order to absorb the first surge of rainwater if a storm occurs.”

Also, the fact that these camps are built on privately-owned land is a significant hindrance to humanitarian work.

“None [of the organizations] can work easily on the privately-owned agricultural lands. The owners of the land won’t let us create any roads on the land, create drainage channels or otherwise,” Abdulrahman told Syria Direct.

Furthermore, in some cases, “the cost of humanitarian intervention is quite high,” whereas the number of beneficiaries is limited, according to Abdulrahman.

In addition, overcrowding remains a huge problem within the camps. According to Hallaj, there are 817 people per square kilometer in the camps. “We don’t currently have any plan to reduce the huge [population] of the makeshift camps or to move them to other areas, especially given that the residential structures in the area have been severely damaged.”

“Perhaps we need more buildings and [to build new] suburbs to accommodate the huge [population], but the temporary solution is to exchange the tents for ‘caravans,’ something which is expensive and will take a long time to complete,” Hallaj said.

A few months ago, Mohanned Abdulhaq, an IDP from the city of Aleppo, bought a small patch of land next to Atme camp where he had been living prior. He built a “humble” house on the land to protect his family from any future natural disasters.

However, most IDPs do not have such an option due to the cost of land and building materials. As Abu Adel sees it, the most pragmatic solution in the current situation is to build trenches on either side of the camp to divert the flow of rainwater away from the recently built shelters.

“We don’t want fuel or blankets; this isn’t the priority,” Abu Adel said. “Just make us a drainage system to divert the rainwater so we don’t drown in our tents. This is all we want from the [humanitarian] organizations.”

 

*This article has been lightly modified from its original version on 29/10/2019 at 11:15 AM

This investigation was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Will Christou