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Why do Arsal refugee camps flood every year?

The rocky geography of Arsal complicates anti-flooding strategies, but the harrowing conditions in refugee camps are not the result of a natural disaster but rather a policy product.

7 December 2020

BAALBEK-HERMEL This will be the first winter in a tent for 53-year-old Fatemah Abbas Hamad. For the last seven years, the Syrian woman and her family have lived in a house in Arsal, northern Lebanon. But recently, they could no longer afford the rent of 270,000 Lebanese lira (LBP), around $180 at the official exchange rate and $33 in the parallel market. Last week, Fatemah, her husband and four of their six children moved into one of the 208 Informal Tented Settlements (ITS) in Arsal, in the Baalbek-Hermel governorate.

The governorate hosts 340,000 of the 879,529 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon; in this region, half of them live in non-permanent shelters, and 78% live below the Survival and Minimum Expenditure Basket. 

Fatemah’s rent in the refugee camp now amounts to 70,000 LBP per month. On a cold November morning, she prepared beans while her son napped in a room fashioned like  a perfectly ordered library. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) covered the cost of the materials to build the tent. Only her first week in the tent, she already worries about the condensation on the floor and walls. The tent is built a few steps above ground, which may spare the family from the floods that hit the region every winter.

Fatemah Abbas Hamad in front of her tent in Arsal, 03/12/2020 (Syria Direct)

Eighty-six percent of camps are expected to flood this winter, 74% will face a shortage of heating materials and 66% will experience sanitation service problems, according to a recent study by Access Center for Human Rights.

The base of Fatemah’s tent walls are made of five cinder blocks, and the rest is plastic and wood, materials that hardly will protect her from the heavy snowstorms and freezing temperatures that this 1,500-altitude area normally registers. Like any Syrian refugee living in an informal settlement in Lebanon, she is not allowed to have cinder blocks stacked more than one meter high following a 2019 Higher Defense Council order. In Arsal,  5,682 Syrian refugee households (25,000 people) had to knock down any wall taller than the allowed height. 

Muhammad al-Hisiki, a 41-year-old refugee from Homs province, was one of them. “I took the hammer and destroyed the walls immediately,” he explained, adding that they also had to change their zinc roof. His family’s tent is fully ‘enveloped’ with isolation material. “Winter here is harsh; it gets very cold, we don’t have enough ‘gasoline’ (mazout), but we are staying as there is nothing we can do,” said this father of six who works in a supermarket for 15,000 LBP per day. Currently, a local NGO pays the rent of the 19 tents of this ITS. 

Muhammad al-Hisiki, his wife and child pose at the entrance of their tent, 03/12/2020 (Syria Direct)

Last year, an NGO installed a fence, spread gravel and built a ridge to avoid floods in the camp, but Muhammad’s tent flooded anyway, as it will this winter according to his prognosis.

A tough winter amidst economic debacle

In Lebanon, where the national currency has lost 80% of its value, poverty is expected to engulf more than half of the population by 2021. The 12-month inflation rate reached 120% last August, and 73% of Syrian households reduced food consumption to cope with the economic crisis, according to World Bank and UN figures. 

Every year UNHCR adopts a ‘Winterization Assistance Plan’ to distribute high thermal blankets and repair shelters to mitigate harsh weather conditions among Syrian refugees. Last winter, UNHCR targeted 860,620 Syrian refugees with a $74.3 million budget; this winter, the number of targeted vulnerable Syrians is bigger (1.1 million), but the budget is smaller ($54.3 million). The ‘winter cash assistance’ is 173,000 LBP per month per family ($21 in the parallel market).

With a growing number of Syrian refugees unable to pay rent, some refugees like Fatemah moved from houses to settlements. Others, like Mahmoud Ali Sawadi, moved to  ‘uninhabitable’ buildings. A year and a half ago, the 53-year-old refugee from the countryside of Homs province contacted a Lebanese landlord who owns an unfinished building; the owner agreed to allow the Syrian family to live on the second floor without paying rent. 

Then, the NRC covered the cost of upgrading the house, installing toilets, sinks, windows and doors. The family received winter aid to buy mazout, but they say it is not enough to deal with  the sub-zero temperatures that freeze the water pipes, blocking the tap. Mahmoud and his wife suffer from respiratory issues tied to humidity, and the house is plagued by internal condensate. Despite these conditions, returning to Syria is a far-fetched scenario. “For us, going to Syria is like going to meet death,” he said. 

Mahmoud Ali Sawadi in his ‘upgraded’ home in Arsal, 03/12/2020 (Syria Direct)

Mahmoud’s house is one of the 125 houses below minimum standards in Arsal that have been rehabilitated by NRC. “We try to bring them up to the minimum standards: plastering, painting, installation of sinks, water tanks, latrines. And after this investment, the landlord will provide the family 12 months occupancy free of charge,” Rodney Shamoun, NRC Shelter and Emergency Response Project Manager, explained. “All of the [construction] materials have become more expensive because of the economic crisis and currency inflation. Pre-existing solidarity networks which used to support the most vulnerable are now really overstretched,” Elena Dikomitis, Advocacy Adviser at NRC Lebanon, added.

This solidarity network is what saved Nabila Idris Matar, originally from the city of al-Qusayr, and her six children from spending their ninth winter in a flooded tent. “The atmosphere in the camps was not good for the kids. When the roads were closed [due to snowstorm], we spent more than two days without water,” she recalled. This winter, she and her children will sleep in a house on top of a hill surrounded by aromatic plants thanks to her brother, who moved to an ‘unfinished’ building and offered her an empty room in it. Her brother used to pay 400,000 LBP per month before the NRC intervened and covered the cost of installing doors and windows. The landlord agreed to offer a year rent-free in return. Nabila’s house in Syria was destroyed; she does not plan to return. 

Why does this happen every year?

Given the poor infrastructure in Lebanon, heavy rains often translate into floods. The rocky geography of Arsal complicates anti-flooding strategies, but the harrowing conditions in refugee camps are not the result of a natural disaster but rather a policy product. The ‘no official and organized refugee camp’ policy adopted by the Lebanese government has tried to avoid the scenario of thousands of Syrian refugees settling down in Lebanon by making living conditions difficult.

For instance, one outcome of this political framework has been the ban of permanent building materials in ITS, making it “challenging to improve sites hosting informal settlements in a more sustainable way,” Dikomitis explained. When some agencies presented a pilot to raise the floor inside the tents in flood-prone sites, it was not feasible given that construction would require  some items prohibited by the government.

The NRC has identified 37 sites in Arsal that regularly flood; in 12 of them, anti-flood strategies can be adopted, while the solution in the other 25 is to relocate.“Unfortunately, ITS relocation in Lebanon is rarely an option since alternative sites are increasingly limited and require approval from several authorities,” Shamoun explained.

In the sites where anti-flood strategies could be implemented, the NRC sometimes faces obstacles like  rejection by landlords and hostility of neighbors. The Access Center of Human Rights (ACHR) has documented cases where a plan to improve a refugee camp may be perceived by “some Lebanese” as a step “leading to the settlement of refugees in the areas,” which can escalate tensions, Layan al-Dani, Program Manager at ACHR, said. 

Funds are another obstacle. A more sustainable upgrade of a tent site may cost around $30,000 and would still require some cyclical shelter activities such as maintenance and preparedness for winter, which donors are reluctant to fund. In Lebanon, the shelter sector has historically been underfunded and “the current funding only covers 17% of the needs that have been identified previously in refugee communities across Lebanon,” Dikomitis warned.

As such, for the ninth consecutive winter, Syrian refugees in Arsal will almost surely see their tents flooded.

This report is part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy to Jordan’s Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).



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