AMMAN — For the tenth consecutive winter, too little has been done to spare thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northwestern Syria from their annual nightmare. Last week, around 228 settlements in the region were fully or partially flooded by rainwater, affecting over 34,000 families, according to the Syria Response Coordinators Team.
“In some tents, the water rose to 70 centimeters; the blankets and mattresses were soaked,” Sharif Abu Khlaif, a fifty-year-old resident of Umm Jaran informal settlement in northern Idlib, told Syria Direct. “We came here with nothing but our clothes, and now the rain has damaged everything we own,” Abu Khlaif, who was displaced one year ago from the countryside of Saqarib, added.
The floods, which have piled onto northwestern Syria’s dismal humanitarian situation, were entirely expected. “It’s been over nine years that we have such problems with the camps and problems to respond to the winter season,” Muhammad Hallaj, Director of the Syria Response Coordinators Team, told Syria Direct.
Overcrowded, unplanned settlements
One and a half million IDPs live in northwestern Syria in approximately 1,302 sites, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Approximately 90% of these sites are self-settled.
Like Umm Jaran, most settlements have to contend with the little land available in the opposition-held region, which absorbed successive waves of displacement due to the regime’s military operations and now hosts four million Syrians.
“The wave of displacement that occurred at the beginning of 2020 caused tremendous pressure on the camps; the number of camp residents increased by 200,000 or 300,000,” Hallaj said. In 2020 alone, according to numbers shared by OCHA with Syria Direct, 440 new self-settled sites were established.
Self-settled sites are often located on agricultural lands unsuitable for construction, on the muddy slopes of olive groves, and near riverbeds and catchment areas. Lack of alternatives, affordability of the rent, and proximity to market and essential services are all reasons why families may end up settling in flood-prone areas.
Meanwhile, planned camps are not necessarily better equipped to resist the winter season. “Some of the camps that were damaged by the rain have been built years ago. The most apparent damage from this year’s rainfalls is the collapse of the concrete blocks installed by some NGOs,” Hallaj said. “This is, of course, a big defect in terms of engineering.”
This is the unfortunate consequence of many camps being designed as ‘temporary’ shelter solutions. “The expectation is that people will return at some point, resulting in less-than-ideal kind of construction that cannot always withstand natural hazards such as winds, rain and flooding,” Wim Zwijnenburg, a Project Leader at PAX organization, told Syria Direct.
Improvements blocked by property concerns
“The floods keep happening year after year because no one can improve the camps,” a project manager in a large INGO responding to the floods, who wished to remain anonymous, told Syria Direct.
Simple structural improvements such as graveling the ground and digging drainage systems could go a long way to decrease the vulnerability of informal camps.
“Honestly, our camp is much better this year, after a drainage network was dug,” Abu Muhammad Khazaee, a resident of Deir Ballut camp in the countryside of the Afrin region, told Syria Direct.
However, “private landowners refuse to let NGOs carry out improvements,” regretted the INGO project manager. “I think this is due to greed because no one wants to lose his olive trees. The landowners collect fees from IDPs and NGOs to host the camps on their land, but the NGOs cannot set up, plan or manage a camp without approvals from the owner.”
Northwestern Syria is plagued by a myriad of “Housing, Land and Property” (HLP) issues because land ownership and land use rights are not clearly determined. According to a 2019 humanitarian manual on HLP, northern Syria hosts at least 325 informal sites where HLP ownership has not been verified.
This is intricately tied to local conflict dynamics in northwestern Syria, where Human Rights Watch documented large-scale land grabs by Turkish-backed armed groups targeting Kurds. Some of the land rented out by IDPs is managed by militias who have no legal right over the land. Under the principle to “do no harm,” humanitarian NGOs are recommended to avoid carrying out long-term improvements in unclear HLP settings, as this could aggravate land disputes and cement the dispossession of their rightful owners.
“There is no legal authority in northwestern Syria that can grant organizations the right to use public lands,” Hisham Dirani, Executive Director of the humanitarian Violet Organization, told Syria Direct. “And there is no approval from donors to deal with de facto authorities or even to deal directly with public lands, which forces us to rent private properties to set up camps,” Dirani added. “As a result, the United Nations and international donors fail to provide long-term housing for the displaced, under the pretext of fear of demographic change.”
Mud barriers erected by residents fail to block the water, which rose by up to 70 centimeters between the tents of Umm Jaran camp, 18/1/21 (Ezzudin al-Idlibi)
The settlement conditions in the area feed into a vicious cycle of environmental destruction that leaves people increasingly exposed to weather catastrophes.
“In our ongoing research using satellite analysis, [we noted] a change in tree cover and loss in northern Syria, both in the west and east. Orchards for olives and fruit trees and other agricultural practices are disappearing, either for firewood collection or due to change in land use, [like building settlements],” Zwijnenburg said. This could increase the risk of soil erosion and landslides, and thus, the lethality of future winters.
The high population density in IDP sites generates a larger environmental footprint, which can multiply the long-term fallout of yearly floods. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year is of particular concern as flooding exacerbates sanitation issues in the camps.
“Large amounts of solid waste pose new environmental health risks as there is a risk of spread of communicable diseases; while waste leachate from the thousands of tons of solid waste collected and stored in unsafe landfills can impact groundwater conditions,” Zwijnenburg added.
Winterization: what for?
Anticipating the harshness of winter, humanitarian actors have adopted yearly “winterization” programs – handing out boots, coats, heaters, blankets or insulation kits. But these efforts often come too little, too late.
For Abu Muhammad, who lives under “a leaking roof made of cloth and nylon” in Deir Ballut camp, blankets and boots are not enough. Last year’s winterization campaign helped with heating materials, but this year Abu Muhammad cannot heat his tent.
“The lifespan of a tent is six months, but some are four to five years old,” Dirani said. “Their poor state and inability to keep heat exacerbates the winter disasters.”
As of January 1, humanitarian organizations had reached around 864,000 people in northwestern Syria with winterization activities, out of the targeted 1.5 million. The Shelter Cluster, a coordination mechanism for humanitarian NGOs, highlighted that “critical gaps” remained in the informal settlements and many were not ready to pass winter.
Winterization is a fix-gap solution for those who would not otherwise be prepared to face the cold winter months. “If you can’t prevent the floods, at least you can give people something to survive and something to warm themselves,” the INGO project manager said, lamenting that NGOs have to prepare each year to face the same emergencies.
But funds are dwindling compared to constantly renewed needs. “There is a wide gap between our needs and what we receive,” Hallaj said. “The winterization response has a specific budget approved by the United Nations, but the amount is insufficient and does not cover emergencies. We see no funding for emergency situations, except after very boring bureaucratic meetings where we obtain funding to cover only 45% of needs.”
Contacted by Syria Direct, OCHA Syria recognized that “needs go beyond the resources available to humanitarian actors” and pointed out the need for “generous, timely and predictable contributions from donors.” ِِAdding that of the $49 million requested for winterization activities in November 2020, less than half have been committed.
In the hours following the floods and over the coming weeks, the priority is to provide shelter for those left out in the open. NGOs active in the area are providing food, blankets, mattresses, clothing and heating supplies. According to OCHA, stocks of non-food item kits and tents are readily available.
Already, thousands have been affected by the cold and rising water, and many more weeks of rain, snow and frost are expected. The nightmare returns year after year as a predictable feature of the winter season. Consequences are dramatic, if not deadly. On Monday, a child passed away following the collapse of one of the walls of his tent.