NEW YORK: The harsh winter conditions that humanitarian agencies in Syria warned of have arrived and are making the already dire plight of internally displaced people (IDP) even more desperate.
In the northwest of the country, heavy rain and floods have toppled tents and destroyed food supplies and household items, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest humanitarian bulletin.
During the week of Jan. 14 to 20, about 200 IDP camps in the Idlib and northern Aleppo areas sustained damage that affected more than 67,000 people. About 4,000 tents were destroyed and 7,700 damaged by floods that also blocked roads leading to the camps.
“Thousands of people have been temporarily relocated, many requiring shelter, food, and non-food item support immediately, and in the long term,” the OCHA said.
“The rain and low temperatures highlight the continued need for fuel and heating, winter clothes, blankets, food, livelihoods, and water, sanitation and hygiene.”
Fuel shortages continue to plague the area, and prices have skyrocketed as a result, leading to inadequate preparation of the camps for the winter weather. Residents desperate for heat have been forced to burn unsafe materials which, aside from the danger of toxic fumes, has increased the risk of accidental fires. One person died and seven were injured in 17 fires that reportedly affected 38 households and burned down 30 tents.
Meanwhile, artillery shelling and bombardments continue in the northwest, especially close to the M4 and M5 highways, two key transportation arteries linking the area to the capital, Damascus. This, along with improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordinance, some of which have gone off in residential areas or at local markets, has killed 10 people and injured 25, including women and children, since Dec. 18.
The continuing hostilities, protracted displacement and the erosion of people’s resilience after a decade of war has left millions in desperate need of assistance, said the OCHA.
Across Syria, it is expected that 13 million people — more than 70 percent of the population — will need help this year. The UN estimates that 10.5 million people will receive humanitarian aid in 2021, at a cost of $4.2 billion — a 10 percent increase compared with 2020.
The pandemic is also taking a toll. The OCHA bulletin reported 21,000 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in northwest Syria, which appears to signal a decrease in transmission rates, but the virus-related death toll from the disease climbed by 46 percent to reach 380. About 10.5 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Syria are in IDP camps.
Although the official figures indicate a reduced rate of new cases, anecdotal information suggests that the virus is much more widespread but that people are wary of seeking tests and treatment because of the stigma and concerns about losing their livelihoods.
The OCHA warned of a funding shortfall that is leading to significant gaps in water and sanitation services. In addition, several protection programs also have been temporarily suspended, and many community-based treatment centers have closed. This is likely to worsen the effects of flooding, COVID-19 and economic hardship, the agency said.
The agency appealed for more money to fund its COVID-19 response plan and provide essential health services to people in northwest Syria, especially with some other COVID-19-related programs also running short of funds.
Preparations are also being made for COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in Syria, with plans to immunize about 850,000 people in the northwest through COVAX, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility. Initially, priority will be given to frontline healthcare and humanitarian workers, people over the age of 60, and people between the ages of 20 and 59 with existing conditions that put them at greater risk from the disease.
More than 2.7 million people are displaced in northwest Syria. In December 2020 alone the number grew by 32,000.