Winter in northwest Syria: A recurring nightmare of icy winds, flooded tents and toxic fumes

Winter Syria
8 min read
11 January, 2024

Displaced Syrians living in informal IDP camps across northwest Syria are struggling to cope with the unbearable conditions the winter season now brings to the isolated territory every year in a repeating nightmare of icy cold, flooded tents, chest infections, landslides and snow storms.

Long gone are the times when winter was welcomed as the season of rains and blessings – as in the days when those now struggling to survive in the camps had homes and livelihoods.

Today, with every dreaded drop in temperature a new layer of suffering is added to the ever-present hardships of poverty and life in camps which lack the bare minimum of life's necessities.

Recurrent flooding and frozen water tanks

Faten al-Kawakabi (33) lives in an IDP camp in Afrin. She fears winter and the extra suffering it has brought her family again and again in recent years. This year, their tent flooded as torrents of rainwater gushed into the camp, and she and her children were forced to shelter with relatives in neighbouring camps – a recurring scenario.

"Long gone are the times when winter was welcomed as the season of rains and blessings – as in the days when those now struggling to survive in IDP camps had homes and livelihoods"

"The tent is falling apart, and I can't refurbish it because we have nothing – we are surrounded by poverty – there is no money, no work, and no support from organisations," she said to The New Arab as she struggled to patch up a section of the tent with a piece of insulating fabric.

She says that the tent has long needed replacement as the cheap nylon material has worn away, "but poverty pushes me to try to repair it – but I don't think it is doing any good as it is worn out."

Bara'a al-Omar (35) lives in the Deir Hassan camp in the Atme area north of Idlib. During the current spell of frost, she was dismayed to find the water in the metal tank outside her tent frozen solid, leaving her unable to obtain water for drinking or other household uses.

"The matter has become unbearable. The cold is bitter and the water is frozen […] so I had to break the ice that had formed on top of the water, draw it into a metal container, and heat it on a basic stove I made in front of my tent – until the ice melted and I was able to use it."

Muddy pool of water in front of a row of tents
Winter rains have turned the ground of many IDP camps into pools of mud as well as flooding tents in northwest Syria [Hadia Al Mansour]

It’s not just frozen water posing a problem for Bara'a – torrential rains have caused flooding in the camp, which worsens after each rainfall. This has left blankets and furniture inside the tent soaking wet and has formed huge muddy puddles all over the camp which makes it difficult for residents and their children to move around, and effectively turns the area into a giant swamp.

Even though Bara'a and her husband always take preventative measures, including building and fortifying earth barriers around the tent walls to stop water flowing in, as well as fixing insulation to the tent’s roof, they usually fail to prevent flooding.

This is because the informal camps don't have any kind of drainage or sewage systems and also lack paved roads, where not even basic materials like sand and pebbles have been used to firm up the pathways. This means the entire ground on which these camps are built swiftly transforms into large expanses of wet mud as soon as heavy rainfall occurs.

"The use of dangerous alternative "fuels" that generate toxic fumes when they burn is impacting the health of the displaced, especially children, huge numbers of whom now suffer from respiratory and chest infections particularly in these winter months"

Safe sources of fuel are unaffordable

Getting hold of fuel to burn for warmth is another major burden on the people of northwest Syria, and has become akin to fantasy for most – high and rising prices have restricted their purchase to the middle and wealthy classes, who only make up a small percentage of camp residents.

Currently, a ton of firewood costs up to $200, a ton of coal is around $240, and mazout (a heavy, semi-refined fuel) costs $250 per barrel.

Bara'a and her unemployed husband can't afford fuel, so they, along with most camp residents, burn bits of plastic, old clothes, plastic bags, and other materials they collect from rubbish dumps to provide warmth for themselves and their five children.

However, the use of dangerous alternative "fuels" that generate toxic fumes when they burn is impacting the health of the displaced, especially children, huge numbers of whom now suffer from respiratory and chest infections, particularly in these winter months.

According to Syria's Early Warning Alert and Response Network (EWARN), a clear rise in severe respiratory diseases among civilians has been monitored, with an increasing appearance of influenza-like cases, and severe acute respiratory illness.

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Spike in respiratory illnesses

The sharp rise in cases coincides with the start of winter and the burning by civilians of charcoal, firewood, primitively refined fuels, plastics, and cheap cartons. Breathing the fumes emitted can exacerbate the severity of symptoms and lead to serious lung diseases including respiratory sepsis.

The Syrian Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets), say their teams are intensifying efforts to respond to cases with their emergency and referral services. As well as this their healthcare services are offering treatments and sprays in line with doctors' recommendations and their teams are carrying out awareness-raising campaigns to teach preventative safety measures civilians can take to protect their health and prevent the spread of respiratory diseases.

Salima al-Bakour (36) has five children, all of whom suffer from chronic asthma. With winter's onset every year their health worsens, and she usually ends up having to take them to hospital for stretches of days at a time so that they can receive emergency care, oxygen, and continuous nebulization therapy sessions.

Salima believes her children's ill health is linked to the burning of toxic materials which generate a lot of smoke and unpleasant odours, which pervade the camp she lives in near the city of Darat Izza throughout the winter.

Their symptoms are bouts of coughing and congestion, which develop into shortness of breath, high temperatures, and inflammation. They often end up in intensive care after each new asthma attack, but she says she can't do anything to improve their health while the factors causing it continue, amidst freezing temperatures and the use of harmful and toxic substances by camp residents to provide warmth.

Salima says the distance of the camp from medical centres is always a worrying factor – especially as her children's breathing difficulties often worsen at night when it can be difficult to find transport to the hospital.

Elderly suffer the most

Although every segment of society in northwest Syria is affected by the onset of winter and the additional hardship it brings, perhaps those who suffer the most are the elderly, especially those who are alone with no one to care for them.

Barjes al-Kurdi is in her seventies. Every day she struggles around the clock to gather as many sticks and bits of wood as possible because she can't afford to buy firewood or a new heater – she has no family to support her nor a source of income.

As her hands shake from the cold and she tries to muster some warmth wrapped in an old overcoat, she says: "The cold aggravates my joint pains and my slipped disc, as well as that I have high blood pressure and diabetes, which forces me to gather what I can to warm my sick and weak body."

"Barjes al-Kurdi is in her seventies. Every day she struggles around the clock to gather as many sticks and bits of wood as possible, because she can't afford to buy firewood"

Ayman al-Ahmad, director of al-Karama camp in north Idlib said IDP the camps in northwest Syria have become unfit for human life in wintertime in light of the plummeting temperatures, rains flooding tents, and storms tearing and damaging them.

These threadbare tents are the only form of shelter for millions of Syrians, including many families, who have no other options after being forced to flee their villages as a result of bombardment and continuous war.

He also expressed his concern over the continuing lack of funding for humanitarian operations by the international community and civil society organisations in northwest Syria.

The Syrian Response Coordinators team recently issued a statement shedding light on the reality of the displaced and their needs during the winter. The statement said that 79 percent of the displaced people last year couldn't obtain heating supplies, and this problem was especially concentrated in the IDP camps. It stated that 94 percent of families had been unable to secure heating materials this winter.

The statement added that the price of fuels for heating was 120 percent higher this winter than last year and that 67 percent of families sought to reduce basic needs, most commonly food, in their attempt to access means to provide warmth during the winter.

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The income of 83 percent of families didn't exceed $50 per month, it added, also highlighting the deaths from cold and fires which had broken out due to the burning of highly flammable and unsafe materials for heating, as well as the damage caused to 160 camps by rain and snow, which had affected over 80,000 camp residents.   

The statement called on all humanitarian organisations and the UN to start preparing winter programmes and to work on plugging the large funding deficits that currently exist, to secure essential support for the most vulnerable, especially those living in the IDP camps.

Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-AwsatAl-MonitorSyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko