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Climate change makes life harder for displaced Syrians

The extreme weather conditions caused by climate change have been particularly felt by the displaced living in camps across northwestern Syria, where NGOs are struggling to meet all of their needs.
This aerial view shows tents covered in snow at a camp for internally displaced Syrians, near the town of Kafr Lusin, as a snow storm hit the region, at the border with Turkey in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, March 13, 2022.

IDLIB, Syria — Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, is no longer a time to rejoice in war-torn Syria. As the conflict entered its 12th year, the bombing and flow of displacement have not been the only reason why there is no more joy during the Eid al-Fitr holidays. The unusual storms and extremely heavy rains in May razed the tents in the camps for the internally displaced people in northwestern Syria, causing them more hardship.

Climate change has been especially felt in Syria, causing a growing delay in the onset of winter rains and severe weather depressions up until the start of the summer months. The extreme heat that prevailed in late April was followed by temperature drops of more than 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) in just two days, before it went up again.

While the end of the cold weather has been a blessing for the displaced, the rise in temperatures is another cause of distress. International and local organizations have repeatedly warned against the consequences of the unusual extreme weather conditions that have hit the displaced in Syria.

Life in the camps has become more like a “horror movie,” said Khaled al-Hussein, 29, who has been living in Jabal al-Sheikh Bahr camp, in the northern countryside of Idlib, since he fled his village south of Idlib 2½ years ago. 

Commenting on the second night of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which witnessed heavy rains, Hussein told Al-Monitor, “Some tents were blown away by the strong winds.” He said that the summer is likely to see soaring temperatures.

Samer al-Khatib, 39, a displaced man residing in Kafr Arouk camp in Idlib, said that the weather conditions have damaged the tents, which have not been replaced in 2½ years. “People are forced to live in the camps, and there are no other solutions,” he told Al-Monitor. 

He also lamented the lack of job opportunities there, saying that he and his family of five depend on aid as they struggle to meet their most basic needs.

Multiple campaigns have been launched during the snowstorm that hit the area this past winter to secure alternative housing to tents for the displaced. Hayan Abu Ahmed, director of al-Nasr camp in Harbanoush in northwest Idlib, described these campaigns as a positive move if they are indeed implemented. 

He told Al-Monitor that even the best types of tents cannot withstand the harsh weather conditions for more than one year; the tents in al-Nasr camp have been in use for more than three years now.

However, he continued, stone houses would only be a small relief for the displaced who were used to living in wide spaces where they would raise animals and engage in agriculture.

The director of al-Tah camp in Idlib’s Batenta village, Adel Salam Yusuf, told Al-Monitor that some of the tents inhabited by the displaced are now larger than the housing units distributed by organizations. Therefore, the residents do not consider these housing units better than the dilapidated tents.

Global warming, which is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2030, promises extreme weather events such as heatwaves, more frequent large storms and more droughts, which will affect the ecosystem, lead to more natural disasters and a growing threat of displacement in the context of climate change due to escalated economic crises.

The Mediterranean region in particular is warming up 20% faster than the global average, which implies more disasters and droughts.

According to a study published in March 2015 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, drought was one of the factors that indirectly started the Syrian revolution in 2011, as it caused higher migration rates from the countryside to the cities in search for employment opportunities and more secure livelihoods. This had increased pressure on resources and anger at government corruption, which subsequently ignited protests demanding reforms. After being suppressed by security forces, the protests led to a bloody war that has pushed more than 90% of Syrians below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, 69% of the displaced Syrians who fled their areas during the waves of displacement from 2018 to 2020 were sheltered in canvas tents at least in the first displacement year. This rate dropped by more than half in the second year, and hit 26% after more than three years since their displacement, according to a joint report issued in February by the United Nations Humanitarian Needs Assessment Program and the Global Shelter Cluster.

Concrete camps did not exceed 10% of the total housing provided for the displaced in northwestern Syria, who numbered 2.8 million out of the total 4.4 million people living in the area. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 58% of them complained about the lack of space in the rooms, 55% suffered from humidity and cold, and 41% from the fact that the dwellings did not provide adequate protection from the weather.

Asmahan Dehny, director of the cash-based response department at the Violet Organization, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that provides humanitarian aid in northern Syria, told Al-Monitor that securing alternative housing to tents is one of the first humanitarian needs in the area, especially since tents last about 6-12 months and most of them exceeded this lifespan. “But due to limited resources the tents have not been replaced for three years or more,” she said.

She noted that there is reluctance and ambiguity when it comes to approving stone buildings instead of tents, out of fear of demographic change in Syria, which the international community uses as a pretext.

Mohammed Karnibo, communications officer at the humanitarian NGO Ataa Association, explained that the international community’s support for the work of NGOs in northern Syria is essential so as to provide an alternative for the displaced, as the number of people in need exceeds all local organizations’ means. 

He told Al-Monitor that migration rates across international borders would increase amid poor global efforts to tackle weather fluctuation in Syria.